ATLANTA — NAACP leaders on Monday again demanded the release of a black man imprisoned after killing a white man on the shooter’s property.
The activists said John McNeil’s conviction was proof that self-defense laws, which McNeil cited in his 2006 trial, are not applied equally to all races in the United States. McNeil is serving a life sentence for the 2005 death of Brian Epp, whom he had hired as a contractor at his Kennesaw home.
“Something is wrong here. Morally wrong. Legally wrong,” said the Rev. William Barber II, an NAACP national board member and president of the group’s North Carolina chapter. “And the only thing that will make it right is to free John McNeil.”
Civil rights organizations have criticized the case since McNeil’s arrest almost nine months after the shooting. Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head pursued a murder charge despite the conclusion of Kennesaw police detectives that McNeil committed no crime. Head won a jury verdict that the Georgia Supreme Court upheld in 2008.
A second appeal awaits action by a trial court in Baldwin County, where McNeil was first imprisoned. He has since been moved to Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe.
A spokeswoman in the Georgia attorney general’s office, which is fighting the second appeal, declined comment, citing office policy not to talk about pending cases. Through a spokeswoman, Head said Monday, “As far as we are concerned, this case is over and done.”
Barber and his Georgia counterpart, Edward DuBose, said the case has gained new urgency because McNeil’s wife, Anita, has been diagnosed with cancer.
McNeil never denied shooting Epp. He told Kennesaw police that Epp wielded a knife during an altercation with McNeil’s son, then charged at the elder McNeil. Investigators found a knife on Epp. An eyewitness testified that he saw Epp charge McNeil but did not see a knife. The eyewitness confirmed McNeil’s account that he fired a warning shot.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said his organization questions “stand-your-ground” laws that do not require a person, regardless of their location, to retreat from a perceived threat if they have an opportunity. But, Jealous said, “we have no qualms about the castle doctrine,” which governs threats that occur on personal property.
McNeil’s conviction, Jealous said, means that in Georgia, “when it comes to protecting your home and your family, there is no law that can protect a black man from a biased system of justice.”
Atlanta attorney Mark Yurachek, who is handling McNeil’s second appeal, argues that his trial attorney made several errors that denied him a fair opportunity for exoneration.
Should that appeal ultimately fail, McNeil’s next opportunity for freedom would be a clemency request to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Yurachek said he is not optimistic about any hearings in front of that body, though Barber and Jealous said the NAACP planned to mount a public campaign.
Jealous said he is reaching out to gun-rights organizations – he declined to name the National Rifle Association or any other group – to build public support for McNeil outside the civil rights community. “Any defender of gun rights and property rights should care about this case,” he said.
Jealous said he would discuss the case with Gov. Nathan Deal, who appoints pardon board members.