Monday, February 11, 2013 12:04 AM
McNeil remembered as 'warrior for justice'
Anita McNeil laid to rest as supporters work to free her husband
By Janet Conner-Knox | Times Staff Writer
Anita McNeil never wanted to be the focus of attention. Her fight to free her husband, John McNeil, from a Georgia prison continued until the day she died.
But Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people came from far and near to L.N. Forbes Original Free Will Baptist Tabernacle Church in Wilson to pay special attention to Anita McNeil, 47, who died a week ago from breast cancer.
Members of the Georgia NAACP traveled 10 hours to pay their respects to Anita.
Others came from every corner of North Carolina.
Congressman G.K. Butterfield, state Sen. Angela Bryant, Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, Mayor Bruce Rose, Wilson County Commissioners chairman Thomas Lucas and ministers from across the state also came to support the families.
The Rev. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP president, said Anita’s life was a good example for others to follow. But he admitted it was a funeral he didn’t really want to preach.
"I am happy in Jesus, but I mourn today,” Barber said. "Sometimes when we look at a birth date and death date and it just doesn’t make sense.”
Barber said he believes the stress from all Anita was living through caused her to die sooner.
But Barber said while Anita lived she was an example for others to follow.
"Anita McNeil taught us how to live and she taught us how to die,” Barber said. "This strong, courageous woman walked in the kind of love that made a difference. Anita loved even John’s accusers.”
Anita believed in justice and would tell the truth, but never said anything negative about any person, Barber said.
Barber told those attending that it was not enough to just celebrate the life Anita lived, but to join in the fight for justice.
"She was a warrior for justice,” Barber said. "Not with guns, not with knives, not with hate, not with rage. She didn’t fight with anger. She knew you can’t fight like that. She fought thinking. She fought consciously. She fought in a way that you could not deny her. She used her tears to make people empowered see the truth of what she was saying.”
Barber said Anita used to tell him that her fight was not just for her husband, but for the injustices for all people.
Anita’s husband, John is in 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. John McNeil has been in prison since 2006. McNeil doesn’t dispute the shooting but says it was self-defense.
The common thread for all speakers Sunday was to continue the fight in Anita’s place for John and others like him.
FREEDOM MAY BE NEAR
A group of Wilson residents along with McNeil’s brother are planning to go to Georgia Tuesday morning where McNeil is expected to plead guilty to manslaughter, and be allowed to come home to Wilson.
Al McSorely, attorney for the N.C. NAACP, said he expects things to go smoothly Tuesday.
"I’ve been in touch with the courts and attorney and I think things will go well,” McSorely said. "By making a plea of manslaughter, he will be able to get time served, and have probation for 13 years. Manslaughter carries a 20-year sentence.”
McNeil has been in prison for six years.
McNeil’s family said John McNeil is not guilty of manslaughter and was defending his family. But they find making a plea easier than having him in the Georgia prison.
Pat Higgs, close friend of Anita’s for decades, said Anita was concerned for her two sons.
"She loved those boys and talked about them almost as much as she talked about John,” Higgs said. "Her sons don’t have her now here with them. They need the strength their father will provide. They need John here.”
Deanna Bonner, Georgia president of Cobb County NAACP, said at the service she intends to be in the courtroom Tuesday.
Bonner gave credit to the N.C. NAACP for letting them know what happened to John McNeil, a Wilson native.
"Thank you for bringing the fight to Georgia,” Bonner said. "We needed to know about the injustice that occurred in Kennesaw, Ga. When you brought the fight to Georgia, you made us aware that we needed to stand tall.”
Bonner said Anita made her understand why it is so important to fight for justice for everyone.
‘TAKE YOUR REST’
Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose said Anita inspired him.
"With all that was going on in her life, she still smiled and was a loving person,” Rose said. "She never said anything negative about anyone. Her body was in pain and her husband incarcerated and she was still a positive person.”
Rose said when he visited her in the hospital she took the time to encourage him.
"She told me that everything would be alright,” Rose said. "And she is right. Everything is alright with Anita. Today she is getting her reward.”
Rose told the group to pray as the delegation goes to Georgia.
Anita wrote letters to her mother, sons, sisters, brothers, Patricia Higgs, whom she called sister-friend, and to her in-laws.
In each of the letters she told them how much she loved them and knew they loved her, too.
Before Barber ended his sermon, he said Anita had a place alongside Sojouner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and others who fought for justice.
"Take your rest, Anita,” Barber said.
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. McNeil says it was self-defense
"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.
McNeil’s attorney, Mark Yuracheck, filed a habeas and asked for a new trial for McNeil, and the habeas was granted.
The state of Georgia appealed that decision.
©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
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