MARIETTA, Ga. — With few words, surrounded by supporters and walking arm-in-arm with family friend Frank Jones and the Rev. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP president, John McNeil walked out of a Georgia prison Tuesday afternoon.
McNeil had served six years of a life sentence.
A Wilson native, McNeil was convicted of murder in 2005 for the shooting death of Brian Epp, the contractor who worked on McNeil’s family home.
McNeil walked into the Cobb County superior courtroom around 9:30 a.m. in an orange jumpsuit with shackles on his hands and feet. He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
Hours later, McNeil left the prison system looking more like a businessman wearing a charcoal-gray suit, white shirt and black dress shoes.
When a host of reporters rushed up to him and asked how he felt, he didn’t smile.
"Grieving for my wife’s death and my mom’s death, so just a sad time for me right now,” McNeil said.
He said he hadn’t had time to even think whether there was a sense of relief.
But he knew what he wanted to do first.
"Breathe, freedom,” McNeil said. "That’s the first thing I want to do.”
The hearing Tuesday morning only took 35 minutes, but advocates like Jones said they have been working on McNeil’s freedom for years.
Before Epp’s shooting, McNeil had no criminal record.
McNeil pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. In the negotiated agreement, McNeil will get time served for his more than six years in prison. He will serve 13 years of probation.
McNeil will be able to serve his probationary time in North Carolina instead of Georgia, which is unusual since the incident occurred in Georgia. McNeil was told that as part of his probation, he will not be able to leave North Carolina. McNeil will have to pay, as part of the probation, $75 per month to begin in 60 days. He can have no contact with the Epp family.
McNeil’s attorney, Mark Yuracheck, filed a habeas corpus motion asking for a new trial, and it was granted. The Georgia attorney general filed an appeal, and both sides were waiting to go before the Georgia Supreme Court to see if they would uphold or deny the motion.
Now that McNeil has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, that takes away the possibility of getting a new trial.
"We’re not happy that John has to take this plea because we know he was protecting his family — he is not guilty,” Jones said.
Some Epp family members sat quietly in the courtroom, but Brian Epp’s wife, Kerry, decided not to come to the proceedings from her Florida home, according to Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Jesse Edwards.
"We initially contacted her to tell her about the unfortunate turn of events with the habeas court, and we did talk with her at the outset about the possibility of resolving this case with a plea,” Edwards told the court. "While I think she would tell the court if she were here that she would be fine with the voluntary manslaughter plea, she is not terribly satisfied with the results we bring before the courts today.”
The Epp family declined to speak after the proceedings.
"This case has garnered some attention over the years as you may have gathered from the media in the courtroom,” Edwards said. "We are here today to finally resolve this case with a negotiated guilty plea.”
Edwards told Cobb County Superior Court Judge Gregory Poole that what happened on Dec. 6, 2005, the day of the shooting, was largely undisputed on both sides.
Edwards told Poole that McNeil got a call from his son, LaRon McNeil, telling him there was an intruder, and that McNeil called 911 for help.
According to Edwards, Epp was on the property next door that he was building when McNeil drove up to his own home. He said McNeil recognized the man as his builder and told the 911 operator so. Edwards then told the court that McNeil removed a semi-automatic gun from the box that was in the glove compartment.
Edwards said McNeil loaded a magazine into the weapon, chambered a round and then got out of his car.
"There was an eyewitness directly across the street — this eyewitness reported and testified that he heard arguing between the two men,” Edwards said. "The defendant fired two shots in this case. One admittedly into the ground — another was fired at Epp’s head as Epp approached the defendant in his driveway.”
Edwards said that McNeil asked for a speedy trial.
"As you know, that necessitates that the state has to try the case within a certain period of time, otherwise there will be an automatic acquittal,” Edwards said to Poole. "So because of that we did just that — tried the case and the defendant was convicted, in large part, because of the speedy trial mandate to get filed and his other choices in the case.”
Edwards said McNeil did admit shooting Epp, but said he did so in self-defense.
Edwards pointed out that while McNeil had been found guilty of felony murder and aggravated assault, he was acquitted of malicious murder and of voluntary manslaughter, the very plea he accepted Tuesday.
Edwards called the habeas court order "misguided,” but also said he didn’t want to have to retry the case if the supreme court upheld the order. He said waiting on that decision means there is uncertainty.
"This plea today will bring certainty and finality to the case, and the state believes it is time to put this case to rest…” Edwards said.
Both McNeil and his attorney stood quietly through the proceedings.
Poole asked Yuracheck if he had anything to say.
"I’d like to disagree with some of Mr. Evans’ adjectives,” Yuracheck told the judge.
"I don’t consider it unfortunate, nor did I consider it a misguided decision by the habeas court. But that is obvious because I am standing on this side and he is standing on the other side.”
Advocates contend McNeil’s conviction should have been overturned.
Poole said the court proceeding was an unusual circumstance.
He told McNeil that although he knows the district attorney’s office and his own attorney had asked him, he was going to ask the same questions again in open court.
"A promise I want you to make to me is if I say or read anything you don’t understand, that you stop me — don’t be shy and don’t be embarrassed,” Poole said. "Just get my attention, because I want to make sure you understand everything I say — whether it’s the rights or the sentence.”
Poole told Edwards and Yuracheck that although the circumstances were unusual, he thought the case before him makes sense, and he would go along with it.
Vic Reynolds, Cobb County district attorney, said Yuracheck approached him after he took office in January.
"He approached me Jan. 15, and we resolved it in a three-week time period,” Reynolds said. "It was a difficult process and a lot of hurt feelings. Any time there is a loss of life, it is extremely difficult to balance that. In the end, we believe we did what was appropriate and we served justice.”
Yuracheck said he has been working on the case for two years.
"This is not a clear victory — nobody wins,” Yuracheck said after the hearing. "What everybody needs to realize is that everybody walked out of that courtroom with tears in their eyes today.”
Yuracheck said McNeil lost a lot in this process, including his wife, Anita, who recently died of cancer. He said he tried to get McNeil home to Anita, but things just didn’t work out in time.
"I’m not celebrating John giving up seven years of his life coming to this day and not have a chance to be with his wife,” Yuracheck said. "I am happy for John, I really am. But nobody should be under the impression there is cause for celebration.”
Yuracheck said it is just an ending.
"Manslaughter is the justice that was available,” Yuracheck said.