The Wilson Times

Saturday, February 09, 2013 12:14 AM

McNeil may go free
As family mourns Anita McNeil, John McNeil plea surfaces

By Janet Conner-Knox | Times Staff Writer

John McNeil’s brothers said they have faith that soon their brother will be released from the Georgia prison where he has spent the last six years.

"When my brother is released, if I can help it, I will not stop the car until we are out of the state of Georgia,” said Robert McNeil, John’s older brother.

And Robert and Chris McNeil, along with Anita McNeil’s family, are praying that day of McNeil’s freedom comes Tuesday morning.

McNeil is scheduled to be in the Cobb County Superior Courthouse at 9 a.m. to plea to a lesser charge of manslaughter in front of a judge, according to that county’s officials and his family members.

He could go free, a major victory for McNeil in this emotional saga that sparked a civil rights struggle from Wilson to Georgia.

McNeil, a Wilson native, is serving a life sentence in Georgia, for shooting and killing Brian Epp. McNeil and advocates said the shooting was in self-defense.

The McNeil brothers, who spoke publicly for the first time in the case, said they have plans to leave Georgia right away after the hearing and bring McNeil straight home to Wilson if he’s released.

McNeil has five brothers and a sister. One of their brothers passed away at a young age, Robert McNeil said.

Although they don’t think it is an ideal situation to take a plea, they said they just want their brother home.

"He was defending himself and he was protecting his family — which is why this hurts so badly,” Robert McNeil said. "But the system has found a way to wiggle itself around.”

The brothers aren’t rejoicing about McNeil’s return yet. Instead they said they are just praying everything will go smoothly.

"I’m just worried about John, that’s all,” said Chris McNeil quietly.

Robert McNeil said he knows what he will do just as soon as McNeil is set free.

"I’m going to put him in my arms – that’s what I’m going to do,” Robert McNeil said.

Chris McNeil said he will do the same.

"I just want to hug and love on him,” Chris McNeil said. "Because, you know, it’s been a long time that he has been away from us.”

The brothers said they have been to Georgia many times to visit their brother in prison.

"We were there for the habeas hearing, too,” Robert McNeil said. "I felt very good that day, for some reason. And it turned out to be in our favor. That was great news. I felt like things had started moving in the right direction then.”

McNeil’s attorney, Mark Yuracheck, filed a habeas last year asking for a new trial. The court granted the new trial, but the Georgia attorney general appealed that decision.

One strategy advocates were considering was to go before the Georgia Supreme Court to see if those justices would uphold the habeas.

But now, that may be too late if the hearing goes as planned Tuesday morning. Last week, John McNeil’s wife, Anita, died from late-stage cancer while she waited for him to be released from prison.

John McNeil got to call his wife before she died.

"He told her that he loved her,” said Tracy Dew, Anita McNeil’s sister. "He told her they would meet again.”

Robert McNeil said he was aware she was sick, but didn’t realize how sick she really was. Breast cancer had spread to her bones.

"She was a good sister-in-law and she fought for John and never let on how sick she was,” Robert McNeil said as his voice cracked. "I have no words that could describe her. She was a great person, just a great person.”

Robert and Chris McNeil said they really had hoped that McNeil would make it home before his wife passed away. They said everything that could have been done legally was done.

Patricia Higgs, Anita McNeil’s friend for 40 years, said Anita McNeil was aware there were motions filed to bring McNeil home.

Higgs said they tried to comfort Anita McNeil and told her although he was delayed, he would be home.

She whispered in her friend’s ear as she was slipping away.

"Anita, you have won,” Higgs said. "You have won this war.

"I saw a tear fall from her eyes, and her mouth moved. I don’t know what she said. But I know she understood me.”

The McNeils said no matter what has happened, they have faith in God and his purpose, even though it has been tough on them.

"As I read the scriptures, I realize that God’s time is not like our time,” Robert McNeil said. "It has been six long years for us, but just a blink of an eye in God’s time.”

Robert McNeil said because McNeil won’t be able to attend the funeral service Sunday, the families have decided not to bury Anita McNeil after the service.

"There is going to be a private service at the funeral home for John,” Robert McNeil said.

Chris McNeil said when he looks back on things, he can only shake his head.

"They only wanted the American Dream, like anyone, and things were going well,” Chris McNeil said. "They had a dream home, John’s work was going really well. Anita was working. Their sons were modeling down there.”

Robert McNeil said just getting out of prison isn’t the end of the hard times for McNeil.

"He’s going to have to go on without Anita, who was a fighter,” Robert McNeil said. "We will have to be the strength and support for him as he tries to rebuild his life, and reunite with his sons.”



According to Frank Jones, family spokesperson, in December 2005, McNeil got a call from his son alerting him that the man who was the builder of their Atlanta home had pulled a knife on him and threatened him in their yard.

McNeil told his son to go into the house and stay there, and McNeil 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, 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. McNeil got out of the car, leaving the car door open, and asked Epp to back up. McNeil 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 point out.

Investigators found a weapon, a box cutter, in Epp’s 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 invoked Georgia’s castle laws. | 265-7847
Services for Anita McNeil

Wake: Saturday from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

Program honoring McNeil: 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Funeral: Sunday at 3 p.m. Services at L.N. Forbes Original Free Will Baptist Tabernacle, 1800 Lane Street SE.

A special account has been set up in Anita’s name at Cornerstone Bank in Wilson.

Send donations to: In Memory of Anita McNeil, Attn: Claudette Howell, Account # 053112314: 4023677

To send the family a message, email them at

©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
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