Wilson, N.C. — 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.
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."