Tuesday, January 15, 2013 11:16 PM
McNeil hospitalized, but vows to keep fighting
By Janet Conner-Knox | Times Staff Writer
Anita McNeil is able to sit up on the side of the bed she is in at a Raleigh hospital, but she’s so weak she can’t hold up her head.
She turns her head slightly when anyone enters the room and manages a smile. She nods instead of saying hello.
Her voice is not as strong as it used to be, but her tone appears just as determined as always.
Anita McNeil is fighting the cancer that won’t stop spreading. She has been in the hospital for over a week now.
But while she has to pay attention to the pain in her body, she said the pain in her heart is greater.
"I am still fighting – we’re still standing,” Anita whispered. "I’m not going to ever give up. The focus is John.”
Anita is waiting and hoping that her husband John McNeil will be freed from a Georgia prison where he is serving a life sentence for shooting and killing a man in his yard, a killing supporters contend was in self-defense.
"I don’t want people to forget about John,” Anita said. "I have not given up.”
Anita has to take a breath sometimes between each word.
Anita has oxygen to assist her in breathing. She is waiting for the new medicines to begin working, she said. Right now she has no appetite. But despite how things look, she said she has faith in God.
"I am looking to go home and be strong,” Anita said. "Once we get this medicine under control, I’ll be back on track. That’s the main thing.”
One of Anita’s big problems is that she doesn’t like to have anyone do anything for her.
"That is hard when you are independent,” Anita smiled. "I am not used to having to ask for so much help for personal needs. But I don’t want to talk about me so much. Please remind everyone that ‘The Injustice Files’ is coming up on television. We need support.”
Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose went to visit Anita in the hospital on Sunday.
"She has got a serious problem – she was weak when I was there,” Rose said. "It would be better if her husband could be here and not in prison. As far as I am concerned he is illegally incarcerated.”
Rose said he is happy to go and spend time with Anita. He plans to visit again this week.
"I am standing with her,” Rose said. "She is a fine young lady.”
Anita’s husband, John McNeil, has been in prison since 2006.
McNeil was convicted of shooting and killing a man in his own yard. McNeil is black. Epp is white.
McNeil doesn’t dispute the shooting, but contends it was self-defense of both his son, himself and his property. McNeil testified in court that Epp threatened his son with a box cutter.
Advocates in both North Carolina and Georgia said they believe this is a case of racial injustice and the case has continued to gain momentum with civil rights advocates from Georgia to Wilson, where protests and rallies have been held calling for McNeil to be freed.
Rose is among McNeil’s supporters.
He arranged in 2012 for Anita McNeil to be flown to Georgia by Wilson businessman Jeff Chesson to visit her husband. She was too sick to make the drive.
According to Frank Jones, spokesman for the McNeil family, in December 2005, McNeil got a call from his son alerting him that the man who was the builder of their Atlanta home pulled a knife on him and threatened him in their yard.
Statements from McNeil say he told his son to go into the house and stay there, and McNeil then called 911.
In a few minutes when he arrived at his house, he was still on the cell phone with 911. McNeil said in a statement he identified the man to the 911 operator as his builder.
According to McNeil’s account of what happened, the builder who was in his neighbor’s driveway then opened the door of his truck, reached in, grabbed something out, and stuck it in his right pocket before moving toward him in his yard.
McNeil was in his car parked in his driveway and reached into his glove compartment and retrieved his gun.
According to the statement, the builder, Brian Epp, kept coming toward him, and McNeil got out of the car, leaving the car door open, asked Epp to back up and then fired a warning shot.
"John told me that he didn’t want to shoot the man, he wanted him to back up, but he kept coming at him,” Jones said.
McNeil shot the man in his yard.
Records show that police did not arrest McNeil because they said it was a case of self-defense, supporters said.
Investigators found a weapon, a box cutter, in Epps’ pocket.
But after 274 days, Cobb County district attorney, Pat Head, prosecuted McNeil.
Police testified on McNeil’s behalf, according to court documents.
"I have never seen a case where police testimony in court is opposed to the district attorney, but they testified for John, not the DA,” Jones said. "All of his neighbors testified and were eyewitnesses that man threatened John and advanced toward him.”
There has never been any dispute that McNeil shot and killed Epp.
"No father would not have gone to defend his son,” Jones said. "Any father would have done exactly what John did. Any father.”
McNeil is invoking Georgia’s castle laws.
McNeil’s attorney, Mark Yuracheck, filed a habeas and asking for a new trial for McNeil, and the habeas was granted.
The state of Georgia appealed that decision, and now the Georgia Supreme Court will decide if the habeas will be upheld.
"As I understand it could go on the Georgia Supreme court docket pretty soon,” Yuracheck said. "That could be as soon as a few weeks. Then we will know when the hearing will be. But I don’t expect a hearing before late March or early April.”
If the Supreme Court upholds the habeas, McNeil will get a new trial.
Yuracheck said he saw McNeil last week and he is in good spirits.
Yuracheck said McNeil is aware his wife is very sick.
"He’s in contact with their family and I feel pretty sure he knows that Anita is not doing well,” Yuracheck said.
"My job is not miracles, but a miracle would be nice.”
In the notice of appeal, Georgia Attorney General Samuel S. Olens said he looked at the transcript and reviewed the habeas court order and concluded an appeal was in order.
"In deciding whether to appeal, our role is limited to determining whether the habeas court correctly decided the legal issues. It is not our job to second guess the jury,” the notice of appeal states.
The notice of appeal says this is an emotional case, with one side arguing McNeil was defending his son and himself, while the other side argued McNeil had a long-running feud with Epp.
Olens calls McNeil’s former attorney a "veteran defense attorney” and said he vigorously pursued a finding of self-defense at the trial, and the jury rejected the defense.
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