Marietta, Ga. — A Wilson native who spent more than six years in a Georgia state prison for a killing that he said was in self-defense was released from prison Tuesday after he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in the case.
John McNeil, 46, was convicted in November 2006 of the shooting death of a man who McNeil said had threatened his son and refused to leave his property.
He was serving a life sentence at Macon State Prison for the crime, but for years, McNeil's wife, Anita, and his supporters, including the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, spoke out for his release, saying he was wrongfully prosecuted because of his race.
John McNeil is black. The man he shot, Brian Epp, was white.
But on Tuesday, a Cobb County Superior Court judge accepted a plea on a charge of voluntary manslaughter and gave him 13 years of probation and credit for seven years served, making him a free man.
"I am grieving for my wife's death," John McNeil told reporters upon his release. "It's just a sad time for me right now."
Anita McNeil, 47, died Feb. 2 after a long battle with breast cancer. Even as she underwent chemotherapy for her second recurrence of the disease, she traveled and advocated for her husband's release.
Family members said they are planning a memorial service once John McNeil returns to Wilson.
State NAACP President Rev. William Barber called Tuesday's release "a kind of partial repentance" by the Georgia criminal justice system.
"While we would have preferred John to be exonerated based on self-defense, we are thankful that he can return home to be with his two sons and start his life over," Roslyn M. Brock, chairwoman for the National Board of Directors for the NAACP, said in a statement. "His release today is a bittersweet victory, because he also returns home in sorrow following the recent death of his loving wife Anita, who fought for his release until her last breath."
Epp's family members, who were present for Tuesday's hearing, said they did not support the plea deal or John McNeil's release.
"It's just hard to believe that someone can do something so horrific and get away with seven years," his former sister-in-law, Jill Bonney, said.
According to the NAACP, the McNeils were the only black residents living in an upscale suburban Atlanta neighborhood in December 2005 when John McNeil received a call one day from one of his sons, telling him that a man was on their property and was threatening him with a box cutter.
John McNeil called 911 and drove home, where he asked the man to leave his property. When the man would not leave, McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground and a second shot when the man 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 John McNeil and won a conviction, putting him in prison for the rest of his life.
Last fall, however, a judge ruled that John McNeil 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.
"I am happy and sad, all at the same time," McNeil's brother, Robert Lee McNeil Jr., said Tuesday. "I'm happy that he's out free, but due to the situation on how it took place, that displeases me, because when a man is innocent, he's innocent."
Anita McNeil's family members in Wilson cried and celebrated John McNeil's homecoming Tuesday morning.
"It's bittersweet. He's going to be very happy here at home," sister Claudette Howell said. "But not to see (Anita) here, it's going to be a little sad."
The family had hoped he would have made it home before his wife died, but they say she died knowing that he would likely be released from prison.
"She believed in justice. She had plenty of faith, and she knew this day was coming," friend Patricia Higgs said. "So, she was able to lay to rest knowing that it was near."