Jealous got the civil rights organization’s national office involved in the case because the court of law failed McNeil and it’s time to take the case before the court of public opinion, he said. An appeal will eventually be made to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, he said.
The NAACP’s office in North Carolina, where the McNeil family is from, has already been working on the case.
“John has exhausted his avenues in court, and it’s time for the state of Georgia to act,” Jealous said. “The Board of Pardons and Paroles have their powers, and governors have their responsibilities.”
Jealous was joined on the steps of the old Cobb Superior Courthouse by Georgia NAACP President Edward DuBose, North Carolina NAACP President the Rev. Dr. William Barber, Cobb NAACP President Deane Bonner and supporters of the McNeil family.
On Nov. 8, 2006, a Cobb jury found McNeil guilty of felony murder and aggravated assault in the death of Epp, a west Cobb homebuilder. Superior Court Judge Dorothy Robinson sentenced him to life in prison, with eligibility for parole after 14 years.
On Nov. 3, 2008, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the jury’s verdict in a 6-1 decision. Then-Chief Justice Leah Sears was the lone dissenter.
Barber and others at the rally said Cobb District Attorney Pat Head’s decision to prosecute McNeil was politically motivated, particularly in light of the fact that the lead investigator did not arrest McNeil. “John McNeil was not prosecuted according to law, he was prosecuted according to politics and his race,” Barber said.
Head disputed that race played any role in McNeil’s prosecution on Wednesday. Though Sears wrote a dissent, two other black members of the state Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, he said.
“The case was tried before a jury, and they believed he intentionally caused the death of an unarmed man,” Head said.
“There was a knife, but it was in the victim’s pocket. He didn’t put it back in his pocket after he was shot. That was the only other weapon found besides McNeil’s pistol.”
McNeil’s wife, Anita McNeil, who now lives in Wilson, N.C., said her husband had every right to defend himself against Epp, who had first threatened one of her sons before her husband arrived at the scene, according to court records.
“We lived in this community, we worked in this community, we went to church in this community, we volunteered in this community,” said Anita, whose two sons, McEachern High School graduates, are now 25 and 26.
“I stand for John, my husband, a very loving, kind, passionate, giving person. I stand for my sons and my family. I will continue to stand and I won’t give up because it’s that foundation that John believed in. I will continue to stand until we have justice and freedom for John.”
The case stems from a confrontation between Epp and McNeil in the driveway of McNeil’s Kennesaw home on Dec. 6, 2005. Epp got into an argument over unfinished work he was doing for McNeil. McNeil shot Epp once in the head with a 9mm handgun, an action he claimed was taken in self-defense when Epp charged at him with a knife.
Cobb police, who arrived at the home shortly after the shooting, pronounced Epp dead at the scene. Both police and the county medical examiner said Epp was not armed when he was shot. A utility knife the homebuilder carried remained clipped to his pocket.
McNeil is black and Epp was white.
McNeil is serving his sentence in the Hancock State Prison, a close security facility in Sparta.