“It’s a great day that my brother gets to come home today,” said Ronald McNeil. “It’s been a long time coming.”
John McNeil, 46, was sentenced to 20 years after serving seven years in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Cobb Superior Court Judge Greg Poole’s courtroom Tuesday.
The prison time was credited as time served, and McNeil was released from the Cobb County Jail Tuesday just before 2 p.m. He will serve the remainder of his sentence, 13 years, on probation.
It was a negotiated plea between McNeil and the Cobb County District Attorney’s office.
McNeil was accused of shooting and killing Brian Epp at McNeil’s Kennesaw home on Dec. 6, 2005. McNeil argued that he shot Epp in self defense after he reportedly threatened him with a knife.
“It means a lot for me to see my brother get out and for him to come home,” Ronald McNeil said.
He said his brother has remained strong through the entire ordeal.
“Every time we talked with him, he had a strong sensation in his voice that everything was going to be all right,” McNeil said.
Frank Jones, John McNeil’s godfather, said Cobb has become his second home since the arrest and he was happy to be joining him on the eight-hour trek back to North Carolina.
“I’m excited but disappointed that (John) had to stand and humble himself to accept a plea when he knew and I knew and everyone else knew that … he was not guilty,” Jones said.
He also spoke of Anita McNeil, John’s wife of 23 years. She died Feb. 2 after losing her second battle to breast cancer.
Jones said the couple, who were high school sweethearts, had not seen each other in about a year but spoke on a regular basis by phone.
A public memorial for Mrs. McNeil was held Sunday, but a private burial service will take place upon McNeil’s return to their hometown of Wilson, N.C.
Ronald McNeil said she remained strong through both her fight with cancer and her husband’s incarceration.
“Even though she’s not here today, she’s here in spirit,” he said.
When asked how John McNeil has been during this time, Jones said he had the “uncanny ability to have the faith that one day this would take place.”
Jones said he had never met anyone with the spirit and strength John McNeil has.
“It’s amazing to me that he has no bitterness in his heart,” Jones said. “He’s disappointed with what’s happened in the judicial system, but he’s the kind of person that I’m proud to call my son. He did everything that was supposed to be done.”
McNeil’s attorney, Atlanta attorney Mark Yurachek, also took a few moments to speak about the case afterwards.
“The thing everybody needs to remember about this case is the profound amount of loss that everybody involved in it suffered,” he said. “Obviously, Mrs. Epp lost a husband, but John lost seven years of his life, a wife and a pristine criminal record.”
Yurachek said Tuesday’s hearing was the “appropriate thing to do” to end the case and allow McNeil to be released from prison.
Presidents of the Cobb, Georgia and North Carolina chapters of the NAACP were also in attendance and made a few comments after the proceeding.
“While we are happy that John is free, we remain ever committed to the work of making our judicial system fair for all,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP.
“John did everything he could not to engage in violence that day, and we’ve prayed for the Epps family, but though we would have rather seen John exonerated on self defense … we are thankful that he is able to return home, we’re thankful that tomorrow he’ll be able to say goodbye to his wife, though she will not be able to speak back to him physically and that he will be there to raise his two sons and begin to repair his life.”
Members of Epp’s family were in attendance, including his ex-wife Julie Epp, 18-year-old son Taylor Epp, ex-sister-in-law Jill Bonney and her husband Steve and a friend of the family Jim King, but they declined to comment about the case afterwards.
Cobb Assistant District Attorney Jesse Evans said during the hearing that he had been in contact with Epp’s widow, Kari Epp who lives in Florida, and while she was unsatisfied with the plea and sentence, she is ready to resolve the case.
“My understanding through other family members is that she was very uncomfortable coming here, seeing the completion of the case in this manner, so she opted not to travel to the state of Georgia today,” Evans said. “She expressed her dissatisfaction and chose not to be here today, but I did promise her that I would share that with the court.”
Evans declined to comment afterwards, but newly elected District Attorney Vic Reynolds said the negotiated plea was a difficult decision.
“There was a loss of life, and you have a victim’s family that was obviously extremely upset, even though it’s been close to seven years ago,” he said.
After weighing the possibility of a retrial, Reynolds said they decided to close out the case.
“I thought it was time to resolve it,” he said.
McNeil is accused of shooting Epp once in the head with a 9mm handgun. 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 was originally found guilty in a jury trial in November 2006 of felony murder and aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison, with eligibility for parole after 14 years.
The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the conviction 6-1 in November 2008, but in an attempt to once again get McNeil released from the state prison system, Atlanta attorney Mark Yurachek filed a habeas corpus petition last January on behalf of the family in Baldwin County, where McNeil was being held at the time.
Yurachek previously said the petition alleges there were a numerous violations associated with the original trial, including his first defense attorney failing to bring a number of important aspects of his defense to the jury’s attention.
Baldwin County Superior Court Judge Hulane George granted the petition in October, but Georgia Attorney General Sam Olen’s’ office appealed the decision, and Cobb has been waiting for a decision.
Because of Tuesday’s ruling by Poole, that appeal was dismissed.