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'Warrior for justice' laid to rest after breast cancer fight

Anita McNeil, a Wilson woman who fought for years for her husband's release from a Georgia prison was laid to rest Sunday, just days before he could be released.

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WILSON, N.C. — A Wilson woman who fought for her husband's release from a Georgia prison was laid to rest Sunday, just days before he could be released after more than six years behind bars.

Hundreds of people gathered at L. N. Forbes Original Free Will Baptist Tabernacle in Wilson to pay their respects to Anita McNeil, who was remembered as a fighter and a warrior for justice.

McNeil, 47, died Feb. 2 after a long battle with breast cancer that had spread to her bones.

For years, even as she underwent chemotherapy for her second bout with cancer, she spoke out for the release of her husband, John McNeil, from prison in Georgia, where he is serving a life sentence for the 2005 shooting death of a man in Kennesaw, Ga.

John McNeil and his family were the only black residents living in a neighborhood of the upscale Atlanta suburb when he shot and killed Brian Epp on the McNeils' property. Witnesses corroborated his story that Epp threatened the McNeils' son with a box cutter and refused to leave the property even after John McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground.

Police initially ruled the case self-defense, but less than a year later, the Cobb County District Attorney's Office pursued a murder charge against McNeil and won a conviction.

The McNeils' story eventually caught the attention of several civil rights groups, including the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, who worked alongside of Anita McNeil to bring attention to her husband's case.

Rev. William Barber, who gave the eulogy at her funeral Sunday, said that one of Anita McNeil's final requests was for everyone to keep on fighting for justice.

"She said, 'We can't quit, because we're all fighters,'" Barber said in a statement shortly after her death.

"Now, as she reigns with the angels, let us imitate her courage and strength and commitment to justice and right until our day comes," he said.

"Anita was a woman of boundless faith. She had no doubt that the arc of the universe would bend toward justice for her husband," NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said. "We will carry on the torch of her passion and double down on our demand for John McNeil’s freedom."

Anita McNeil last saw her husband in September, when she was able to spend three hours with him. The two were able to speak by phone shortly before she died.

It was also when a Georgia judge ruled that John McNeil should be released because of multiple errors at trial, including the jury not being properly instructed on a person's right to use force to defend himself, his home or another person from violent attack.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, however, appealed the ruling.

John McNeil is expected to enter a plea Tuesday to a lesser charge of manslaughter and could go free.

"The hope is he can get out and he can move on, and we can fight together to clean up this criminal injustice," Barber said Sunday. "People should not have to go through this kind of hurt, pain and tragedy – particularly at the hands of the criminal justice system."


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