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Homecoming bittersweet for freed Wilson man

Posted February 13, 2013
Updated February 14, 2013

— John McNeil spent part of his first full day of freedom in more than seven years visiting at a Wilson funeral home his wife Anita – his high school sweetheart, the mother of his two sons and the woman who relentlessly fought, even on her death bed, for his release from a Georgia state prison.

"She had a glow about herself today," McNeil told reporters Wednesday afternoon, a day after he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in a crime in which he maintains he acted in self-defense.

It was a reunion 11 days late. Anita died Feb. 2 from complications of breast cancer that had spread to her bones.

Family members and friends honored and celebrated her life with a funeral on Sunday without McNeil. They're planning another service soon – with him.

"It hurt me real bad that I couldn't be here," McNeil said.

He did, however, get to talk with her on the phone, and she knew he was getting out of prison.

"God's got this," she told him.

Anita and NAACP leaders in Georgia and North Carolina waged a public relations campaign for McNeil's freedom after a judge in September ruled he was entitled to a new trial.

On Tuesday, he entered a guilty plea to end an appeal pending before the Georgia Supreme Court. He was sentenced to 20 years and was given seven years credit for time served. He is expected to serve the remaining 13 years on probation in Wilson with his family.

"I am thankful to be a free man," McNeil said. "I am also grieving. I lost my best friend, my lover, my everything."

His main focus now, he says, is his two adult sons.

"They're grieving too," he said. "I am determined to do whatever I can to get them back on track."

McNeil has never denied the shooting that sent him to prison, but he says he did it because he was protecting his family. Freed Wilson grieves for late wife Freed Wilson grieves for late wife

According to the NAACP, McNeil, who is black, received a phone call one day in December 2005 from one of his sons, telling him that a man, Brian Epp, who is white, was on their property and was threatening him with a box cutter.

McNeil called 911 while en route to his home in an upscale Atlanta suburb. When he arrived, he asked Epp to leave his property. When Epp would not, McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground and a second shot when Epp allegedly became aggressive and approached him.

Witnesses corroborated the story, and police initially ruled the shooting self-defense.

Nine months later, the Cobb County District Attorney's Office pursued a murder charge against McNeil and won a conviction, putting him in prison for the rest of his life.

Last fall, however, a judge ruled that he should be released because of multiple errors at trial, including that the jury was not properly instructed on a person's right to use force to defend himself, his home or another person from violent attack.

His release now, state NAACP President Rev. William Barber says, is a "bittersweet victory." Supporters say he was prosecuted because he is black, and they believe McNeil should have been exonerated based on self-defense.

"If this could happen in this nation to John McNeil, it can happen to any black man, white man – any man, no matter how good of a life he has led," Barber said. "America, to be a great nation, has to deal with its continuing disparities in the criminal justice system."

McNeil says he can forgive but not forget about what happened to him.

Besides his family, he says, his priorities are transitioning back into the community and, with the support of the NAACP, fight for others in similar situations as his.

"Do what's right," he said, "even if you get punished for it."



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  • Lightfoot3 Feb 15, 2013

    “I am say that this situation is a PERFECT example of why gun rights should be protected at all costs!!” – Its the who what


    I wouldn’t say it’s a “perfect” example, but the reason why it’s not on the gun rights debate is that no one challenged it. No one made issue of gun ownership in this incident. This is a self-defense issue. He could have used a bat, a knife, etc. and we’d still have the same situation (minus the hollow points).


    “you would rather throw jabs at the NAACP for supporting this man's cause” – Its the who what


    I didn’t throw jabs. I’m glad the NAACP helped him.


    “You just want a select few people to carry” – Its the who what


    Anyone that meets the LEGAL requirements can carry.

  • Its the who what Feb 14, 2013

    This wasn't a gun rights issue. But the defense should have definitely countered the claim that hollow point bullets are only used by murderers. Lightfoot3

    Yeah automatic weapons are only used by murderers too!!! Not saying that this a gun rights issue I am say that this situation is a PERFECT example of why gun rights should be protected at all costs!! Yet NO gun rights owners are speaking up!!! I wonder why??? The NRA should have supported this man and fought for his release based on the right to bear arms and protect his family. Yet you would rather throw jabs at the NAACP for supporting this man's cause. Where was the NRA? This tells me that you do not care about the rights for ALL to bear arms. You just want a select few people to carry. I can't wait for the NRA to extend an invitation to McNeil to be an honored guest at their next rally. Yeah that WON'T happen.

  • free2bme Feb 14, 2013

    NC Joe, you need to wake up and smell the coffee. Step into reality. There is no way someone coming on your property with a weapon threatening your family is right. Even if he is a contractor, there is a way he should conduct himself professionally. It sounds like you feel it would have been better if his 19 year old son would've shot the man instead of the father. If someone comes to your home to threaten your family and actually approaches you, you evidently feel that you should do nothing & hope you live. I myself choose to protect my family til the end.

  • Lightfoot3 Feb 14, 2013

    "Don't know the story, but were the police called ?" - evenflow2005


    Yes. 911 told McNeil to wait. But McNeil was mad that Epp was there & had threatened his son, so he got out of his car & argued. Epp took something from his truck, put it in his pocket & advanced on McNeil. McNeil warned him to stop, fired a warning shot, & another shot (at 3 feet) as Epp charged him. Witnesses confirmed this. Because McNeil told 911 he was going to whup Epp's tail, & because his used hollowpoints, jury said it was murder. If the jury was all or mostly white, I'd wonder about race. Yes, McNeil was mad, there was history, etc., but with Epp's prior history of threatening and being a hothead, Epp on McNeil's property, the witness testimony that backed up McNeil, his son testifying he was threatened, and the knife in the pocket, I'm surprised McNeil was convicted. Jurors are notoriously stupid. Guilty or innocent, a jury is a scary thing to face.

  • wakemom Feb 14, 2013

    This guy did what every gun rights support SAYS they would do. When the lady in Georgia shot the guy that broke in her house, gun rights supporters came out from every rock and said she was a hero? This guy does the same thing and gets LIFE in prison!!! Where are my gun rights people at??? Everybody has a problem with the NAACP showing up but the NRA should have been the ones leading the fight!! Where were they at? I guess gun rights pertinent depending on who you are shooting.
    Its the who what

    BINGO!

  • evenflow2005 Feb 14, 2013

    Don't know the story, but were the police called ? Or did they show up after the fact, as usual.

  • Lightfoot3 Feb 14, 2013

    "Everybody has a problem with the NAACP showing up" - Its the who what


    I didn't have a problem, but I do wonder about the racial makeup of the jury. Anyone know? I was surprised at Epp's picture because I had assumed he was a middle-aged bumpkin, not some young clean cut 30 something. I'm sure the DA played it up. But anyone can be a bully and threat. I'm sure people were surprised at the 16 year old white robber that just got shot in Hoke County.


    "NRA should have been the ones leading the fight!!" - Its the who what


    This wasn't a gun rights issue. But the defense should have definitely countered the claim that hollow point bullets are only used by murderers.

  • Lightfoot3 Feb 14, 2013

    McNeill definitely wanted to kick Epp's tail for the threats and such, but this wasn't premediated murder. Epp was a known bully and hothead. Another couple that used him said they bought a gun to protect themselves from him and boarded up their windows because he would spy on them. On scene witnesses said that Epps charged McNeill, apparently after putting something in his pocket from his truck. He had already threatend the son with a "blade", so McNeill rightfully assumed he was armed. McNeill's anger on the 911 call doesn't mean he intended to kill Epp. And hollow point bullets are a COMMON defensive round, despite what the jury thinks of them.

  • Lightfoot3 Feb 14, 2013

    "Epp was on the property because he was the contractor." - NCJoe


    Apparently removing items to use eslewhere. Even if he was the builder, it wasn't his property and he was told to leave but didn't.


    ""threatened child" was 19 years old and big enough to take care of himself" - NCJoe


    Against a weapon?


    ""deadly weapon" was a contractor's utility knife" -NCJoe


    What did the 911 highjackers use?


    "still in his pocket when he died" -NCJoe

    Cause he was shot before he had a chance to use it?

    "McNeil said "I'm going to whip his a##"." - NCJoe

    Yep, he was angry about his son being threatend on his own property.

    "That's premeditation" - NCJoe

    Of assault, not murder 1. And it was in the heat of the moment of rushing home to confront a man threatening his son.

    "The jurors still stand behind their decision" - NCJoe

    One of the reasons they cited was the hollow point bullets. Clearly they're ignorant.

  • Its the who what Feb 14, 2013

    This guy did what every gun rights support SAYS they would do. When the lady in Georgia shot the guy that broke in her house, gun rights supporters came out from every rock and said she was a hero? This guy does the same thing and gets LIFE in prison!!! Where are my gun rights people at??? Everybody has a problem with the NAACP showing up but the NRA should have been the ones leading the fight!! Where were they at? I guess gun rights pertinent depending on who you are shooting.

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