Emotions run high as Wilson native begins journey home
By Janet Conner-Knox | Times Staff Writer
MARIETTA, Ga. — Family members, national and state NAACP members, college friends and advocates waited patiently for hours at the Cobb County Detention Visitors' Center for John McNeil to come walking out.
His brother, Robert McNeil, said he had butterflies in his stomach at one point.
"Well, we’ve waited this long,” said Chris McNeil, John McNeil’s brother. "I can wait some more. John’s coming home and that is what is so important.”
McNeil’s youngest brother, Ronald McNeil, said he hadn’t gotten any sleep since Monday night.
"I’m walking on fumes — I’m so tired,” Ronald McNeil said. "I have been praying for this day for a long time. I can’t wait to see him out of those chains.”
Numerous media outlets set up cameras near the center waiting for McNeil’s first step outside of the prison walls.
The groups had been promised his release would be sometime around 12:30 p.m. — then 1 p.m., and then half an hour later.
But just before 2 p.m., he came slowly walking through the center, and nobody noticed him at first.
Deanna Bonner, Cobb County NAACP president, yelled out, "Oh my God, there he is.”
Suddenly, the center in which there were only whispers was filled with applause and people saying, "thank you,” and "thank you, Jesus,” out loud. Many were wiping away tears.
Then, McNeil and Frank Jones, a family friend, embraced for a long time. McNeil then embraced North Carolina NAACP President the Rev. William Barber.
So many people were in the area, officers kept telling the group they had to move outside. But person after person kept waiting for their turn to hug McNeil.
After more than six years, McNeil walked out of prison.
Reporters asked him how did he feel? Was he happy to be free?
"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 if 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.”
McNeil did not talk after that. He was led to a car by Barber and Robert McNeil.
"We want to go straight home to Wilson,” said Chris McNeil. "No stopping if we can help it.”
WILSON’S ELECTED OFFICIALS
Mayor Bruce Rose said he is happy to hear about McNeil’s release.
"I heard that he will be coming to Wilson and I can’t wait to see him,” Rose said. "I don’t care what Georgia said, they were wrong. It hurt me to see him in that orange uniform shackled like that.”
Rose said he knows McNeil will need a lot of help getting started again, and he will help him all he can.
"I’m going to do all I can to help him,” Rose said. "He’s not a criminal. He should have been allowed to be with his wife before she died. But he will be welcome in Wilson. He belongs to Wilson and I believe he will get a lot of help.”
Congressman G.K. Butterfield said he has been watching the McNeil case for a while and he is also happy McNeil is coming back to Wilson.
"While many are disappointed McNeil’s conviction was not overturned based on self-defense, today he can at least return home, rejoin his family and attempt to pick up the pieces of his broken life,” Butterfield said.
Butterfield credits the NAACP for helping bring attention to the McNeil case.
"Although bittersweet, McNeil’s release from prison is a direct result of the Wilson Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which convinced the national office to lead this fight,” Butterfield said. "On the 104th anniversary of its founding, I applaud the NAACP for its tireless and unwavering advocacy on behalf of men and women of color nationwide. I continue to be grateful to the NAACP for the critically important work it completes.”
THE FIGHT AHEAD
Barber stood on the steps of the Cobb County Courthouse after McNeil made his plea. Barber said the criminal system is broken.
"He pled to a lesser charge, but the criminal justice system in Georgia and across America still remains guilty of the greater charge — that is continuing disparities in sentencing, convictions of African-American men, minority people and poor whites,” said Barber.
While on the steps of the courthouse, Barber told the group that he was sure Anita McNeil was glad they did not forget him. He said they must also work to help others who are in a predicament like John McNeil.
Robert McNeil said McNeil will need a lot of support as he tries to get his life together and help his sons.
McNeil’s youngest son, LaRon McNeil, has not been able to recover from all that has happened, Robert McNeil said. Many family members said LaRon is another victim in this whole saga. LaRon is the son who called his father the day he saw Brian Epp in their yard.
"Anita was so worried about him because he blames himself for all that has happened to his parents,” Robert McNeil said. "He wouldn’t sleep and just cry and cry.”
Robert McNeil said his ever-deepening depression caused him to begin drinking.
"You know he doesn’t smile,” Robert McNeil said. "He can’t understand that any boy his age would have called his father. So John has to help his son heal. It is a long road ahead. But we are here to help.”
Since McNeil was not able to attend the service for his wife Anita, he will have a small, private service with just family members.
Anita McNeil died recently and her service was held Sunday. Family members hope McNeil and their sons will be able to be together to say farewell to Anita this week.