Unequal justice? NAACP wages civil rights battle from the heart of Wilson, GA

Reprinted from the Wilson Times.

Wilson native John McNeil sits in a prison cell as he has done for five and a half years, serving a life sentence for shooting a Cobb County, Ga., man.

But NAACP leaders believe he was defending himself and his son. They traveled to Wilson on Friday to drive home their belief that McNeil has been wrongly imprisoned in the shooting death of Brian Epp and to fight for his release.

The story has taken center stage in two states and has the attention and full support of the National NAACP, according to George Leach, president of the Wilson branch of the NAACP.

On Friday morning, state NAACP president, the Rev. William J. Barber II, stood with McNeil’s wife, Anita, McNeil’s two sons, Leach, family spokesman Frank Jones and a host of supporters to ask everyone to take a look at the details of the December 2005 shooting and subsequent case.

They held a press conference on the Wilson County Courthouse steps to bring attention to what NAACP leaders call a miscarriage of justice.

An eyewitness previously testified in court that Epp was trespassing on McNeil’s property.

“We want you to take a look at the facts. This trespasser refused to leave McNeil’s property, and continued to advance despite McNeil firing a warning shot into the ground and begging him to leave his property and not to advance,” Barber said. “Just minutes earlier Epp had threatened John McNeil’s son with a weapon. And please remember it was John McNeil who called the police. Now he sits in a prison after protecting his son and his home.”

Barber said Epp was just over two feet from McNeil and advancing toward him when McNeil shot and killed him.

Barber said the eyewitness and local police all testified for McNeil at his trial.

“The McNeil case ought to concern all of us — black, white, Latino — anybody concerned about justice,” Barber said, “It’s a prime example of the age old unequal justice in the court system.”

Barber said McNeil was an example of a man who went by the rules of society.

“Here we have a man who did everything right,” Barber said. ”A high school athletic and academic all-star, who went on to graduate from Elizabeth City State University. He became an outstanding father, an outstanding businessman with no criminal record.”

He was also a Fike High School graduate and basketball star. His family now lives in Wilson.

McNeil’s conviction was taken before the Georgia Supreme Court.

When the Georgia Supreme Court reviewed the case, six of the seven justices upheld the conviction.

Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote she had problems with the case.

“I conclude that no rational trier of fact could find, based on the evidence presented at trial, that the state disproved McNeil’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, I must dissent,” she wrote.

Barber and others are hoping for a new trial for McNeil. They have hired a Georgia appellate attorney to see if there can be a new trial. Barber said there is information that was not heard in the original trial.

“He (the appellate attorney) recently argued to an appellate judge who has offered a new habeas hearing, and during that hearing he argued that there is strong evidence of inadequate council and unfairness in McNeil’s trial,” Barber said. “There is new evidence that never came out in the trial about marijuana being in the truck of the trespasser and his former record as a methamphetamine felon. He was one who had broken his probation. The decision is pending and we are hopeful that this habeas hearing will lead to a new trial for John McNeil where the full story can be told.”

Anita McNeil, who has been rediagnosed with cancer, told the group she and her husband are high school sweethearts. Then she broke down and started crying. She hasn’t been able to visit her husband in a year and a half because of her cancer treatments and not being able to drive, she said.

She said she just finished chemotherapy and radiation treatments and had hoped to visit him this month. But she is having back spasms and can’t take the hours driving in a car. She said she talks to him once a month, they write constantly and she hopes she’ll get to see him in July.

“We have shared 29 years together and this August we’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary,” McNeil said. “We have two sons. Although we did live in Georgia, we were born and raised here in Wilson. Wilson is our home.”

Mrs. McNeil said her husband’s incarceration has devastated their family.

“John is incarcerated today because he chose to use his rights as a homeowner,” Mrs. McNeil said. “He chose to go home to make sure after a distress call from our youngest son who was threatened by an intruder with a box cutter blade on our property ...”

Mrs. McNeil said her husband is in a special part of the prison that is considered the honor’s dorm in the maximum security prison. She said he spends his time in the law library helping others.

“Even in prison, he still said he feels like he needs to give to others,” Mrs. McNeil said. “You know that is what John taught our sons — give back to others. My sons need him here to teach them about being a man.”

Brian Epp was hired to build the McNeils’ home. Epp allegedly had been fired from the job after not completing work for the McNeils. Other neighbors testified they had the same problem with Epp, according to Jones.

The McNeils were the only African-American family in an upscale suburban neighborhood, Jones said.

“The McNeils were not the only family that Epp had threatened,” Jones said. “Another family said Epp was extremely aggressive toward them, too. They testified in court that Epp made them very uncomfortable and they felt threatened.”

Jones said they even said they also began carrying a gun to protect themselves against Epp.

Bob Zellner, who is well known for his civil rights work for the last 50 years, has just moved to Wilson to help with the McNeil case.

“I think this case is the mirror image of the Trayvon Martin case,” Zellner said. “The deciding factor is race, which is still very important in the South and very important in the criminal justice system.”

Zellner alleges Trayvon Martin’s killer was an predator.

“He followed him, tracked him. He was the aggressor, yet he claimed self-defense,” Zellner said. “He was not even arrested. It took a national clamor to even get him some kind of trial.”

Zellner said in McNeil’s case, it’s the other way around.

“Once he got into the criminal system, the presumption was that the black man shot the white man, was guilty and should be sentenced to life in prison.”

Zellner said there is a lot of work to be done in the McNeil case.

Barber told the group that under the castle law in Georgia, McNeil was under no duty to retreat.

He said the law doesn’t say someone has to be committing a felony on you; if you are on your own property and you think or feel that a felony is about to be committed, you have a right to defend yourself.

Barber said officers found Epp had the knife in his hand when they got to the scene of the shooting.

“The District Attorney’s office lifted Epp up as a pristine person,” Barber said. “They didn’t even deal with how other folks were afraid of him. There are a lot of other facts that are a part of this.”

Barber said McNeil was not some gangbanger running in the streets, but a good man.

“If this could happen to a John McNeil, a businessman without a criminal record, a husband, a father, who restrained himself, then this could happen to anybody,” Barber said.