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Unequal justice?
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Unequal justice?
NAACP wages civil rights battle from the heart of Wilson




Wilson native John McNeil sits in a prison cell as he has done for five and a half years, serving a life sentence for shooting a Cobb County, Ga., man.

But NAACP leaders believe he was defending himself and his son. They traveled to Wilson on Friday to drive home their belief that McNeil has been wrongly imprisoned in the shooting death of Brian Epp and to fight for his release.

The story has taken center stage in two states and has the attention and full support of the National NAACP, according to George Leach, president of the Wilson branch of the NAACP.

On Friday morning, state NAACP president, the Rev. William J. Barber II, stood with McNeil’s wife, Anita, McNeil’s two sons, Leach, family spokesman Frank Jones and a host of supporters to ask everyone to take a look at the details of the December 2005 shooting and subsequent case.

They held a press conference on the Wilson County Courthouse steps to bring attention to what NAACP leaders call a miscarriage of justice.

An eyewitness previously testified in court that Epp was trespassing on McNeil’s property.

"We want you to take a look at the facts. This trespasser refused to leave McNeil’s property, and continued to advance despite McNeil firing a warning shot into the ground and begging him to leave his property and not to advance,” Barber said. "Just minutes earlier Epp had threatened John McNeil’s son with a weapon. And please remember it was John McNeil who called the police. Now he sits in a prison after protecting his son and his home.”

Barber said Epp was just over two feet from McNeil and advancing toward him when McNeil shot and killed him.

Barber said the eyewitness and local police all testified for McNeil at his trial.

"The McNeil case ought to concern all of us — black, white, Latino — anybody concerned about justice,” Barber said, "It’s a prime example of the age old unequal justice in the court system.”

Barber said McNeil was an example of a man who went by the rules of society.

"Here we have a man who did everything right,” Barber said. ”A high school athletic and academic all-star, who went on to graduate from Elizabeth City State University. He became an outstanding father, an outstanding businessman with no criminal record.”

He was also a Fike High School graduate and basketball star. His family now lives in Wilson.

McNeil’s conviction was taken before the Georgia Supreme Court.

When the Georgia Supreme Court reviewed the case, six of the seven justices upheld the conviction.

Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote she had problems with the case.

"I conclude that no rational trier of fact could find, based on the evidence presented at trial, that the state disproved McNeil’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, I must dissent,” she wrote.

Barber and others are hoping for a new trial for McNeil. They have hired a Georgia appellate attorney to see if there can be a new trial. Barber said there is information that was not heard in the original trial.

"He (the appellate attorney) recently argued to an appellate judge who has offered a new habeas hearing, and during that hearing he argued that there is strong evidence of inadequate council and unfairness in McNeil’s trial,” Barber said. "There is new evidence that never came out in the trial about marijuana being in the truck of the trespasser and his former record as a methamphetamine felon. He was one who had broken his probation. The decision is pending and we are hopeful that this habeas hearing will lead to a new trial for John McNeil where the full story can be told.”

Anita McNeil, who has been rediagnosed with cancer, told the group she and her husband are high school sweethearts. Then she broke down and started crying. She hasn’t been able to visit her husband in a year and a half because of her cancer treatments and not being able to drive, she said.

She said she just finished chemotherapy and radiation treatments and had hoped to visit him this month. But she is having back spasms and can’t take the hours driving in a car. She said she talks to him once a month, they write constantly and she hopes she’ll get to see him in July.

"We have shared 29 years together and this August we’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary,” McNeil said. "We have two sons. Although we did live in Georgia, we were born and raised here in Wilson. Wilson is our home.”

Mrs. McNeil said her husband’s incarceration has devastated their family.

"John is incarcerated today because he chose to use his rights as a homeowner,” Mrs. McNeil said. "He chose to go home to make sure after a distress call from our youngest son who was threatened by an intruder with a box cutter blade on our property ...”

Mrs. McNeil said her husband is in a special part of the prison that is considered the honor’s dorm in the maximum security prison. She said he spends his time in the law library helping others.

"Even in prison, he still said he feels like he needs to give to others,” Mrs. McNeil said. "You know that is what John taught our sons — give back to others. My sons need him here to teach them about being a man.”

Brian Epp was hired to build the McNeils’ home. Epp allegedly had been fired from the job after not completing work for the McNeils. Other neighbors testified they had the same problem with Epp, according to Jones.

The McNeils were the only African-American family in an upscale suburban neighborhood, Jones said.

"The McNeils were not the only family that Epp had threatened,” Jones said. "Another family said Epp was extremely aggressive toward them, too. They testified in court that Epp made them very uncomfortable and they felt threatened.”

Jones said they even said they also began carrying a gun to protect themselves against Epp.

Bob Zellner, who is well known for his civil rights work for the last 50 years, has just moved to Wilson to help with the McNeil case.

"I think this case is the mirror image of the Trayvon Martin case,” Zellner said. "The deciding factor is race, which is still very important in the South and very important in the criminal justice system.”

Zellner alleges Trayvon Martin’s killer was an predator.

"He followed him, tracked him. He was the aggressor, yet he claimed self-defense,” Zellner said. "He was not even arrested. It took a national clamor to even get him some kind of trial.”

Zellner said in McNeil’s case, it’s the other way around.

"Once he got into the criminal system, the presumption was that the black man shot the white man, was guilty and should be sentenced to life in prison.”

Zellner said there is a lot of work to be done in the McNeil case.

Barber told the group that under the castle law in Georgia, McNeil was under no duty to retreat.

He said the law doesn’t say someone has to be committing a felony on you; if you are on your own property and you think or feel that a felony is about to be committed, you have a right to defend yourself.

Barber said officers found Epp had the knife in his hand when they got to the scene of the shooting.

"The District Attorney’s office lifted Epp up as a pristine person,” Barber said. "They didn’t even deal with how other folks were afraid of him. There are a lot of other facts that are a part of this.”

Barber said McNeil was not some gangbanger running in the streets, but a good man.

"If this could happen to a John McNeil, a businessman without a criminal record, a husband, a father, who restrained himself, then this could happen to anybody,” Barber said.

janet@wilsontimes.com | 265-7847
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Lori said...

I saw this story on The Huffington Post today and was very moved by it. I feel just terrible for Mr. McNeil and his family. I wish there was something I could do. Searching for a place to leave a comment was all I could come up with ... so here it is. Mr. McNeil, countless people you have never met stand beside you. I am so sorry for the loss of your wife. I am so sorry our "justice" system has treated you in this manner. You are not a murderer. You are a good man. Don't ever believe differently. My heart goes out to you.
Lori, Research Triangle NC

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 4:54 PM
@WILSON CH said...

John and his wife was born and raised in Wilson. John was the NC High School 1984 MVP in Boys Basketball(Fike High School). IF he was your son or brother...would you fight for him...regardless of where he resided? While the incident may have happened in GA...HIS WIFE now lives here and she need not only our prayers but Wilson's support. I don't know them personally, but I am a father and even though of a different race...I could be John McNeil. JUSTICE IS JUSTICE regardless of where you live and for me and my family regardless of race. If we can help someone who faces injustice, who is incarcerated become free...what a story we can share and be be proud of. I pray that the day will come, regardless of who we are and where we live...there will be a coming together of Everyone who will not be afraid, ashamed, or uninterested to take a stand. I pray you and your family will always be well and safe.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 at 5:05 PM
Equal Justice said...

While I have read all of your comments, I've researched the info for myself. McNeil may/may not have been an academic scholar, but he was a model citizen, businessman and father. He was able to buy a home most of us dream about(hmm did jealous play a role). And is that important? What's important to me (and should be to anyone) is that a homeowner, a father, A citizen lost his right to protect his home, his kids, and himself! That shold make all of us (any race) angry. Now throw in the fact that McNeil is Black...should Folks not stand and fight? I say let's stand behind him, JOHN McNEIL could be me!!!When will we stop being afraid of supporting a Right especially when we know and facts support the Truth? What are we teaching our kids, are we still that divided? Justice should NEVER have any color!

Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 12:34 AM
to Good Luck said...

The NAACP is committed to civil rights for all - not just people of color. They are not perfect and they make mistakes (the Duke LaCrosse case was one such mistake and because I have personal information re the Brittany Willis case - which I shared with police, I believe they were wrong on that case, as well). Nevertheless, it takes courage to stand for civil rights and I applaud the NAACP and others who do so. I have attended meetings in Wilson to help further the cause of equality in our schools (particularly when Adams School ended up without enough books at the beginning of the year - or perhaps it was Adams' students being moved when the school was closed? Anyway, learning materials were lacking and I'm glad the NAACP helped to bring attention to the issue).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 8:53 PM
Good Luck said...

I wish the McNeil Family luck and it sounds like Mr.McNeil was doing what he should do for his family and home!Im sorry that Mrs.Mcneil is having to deal with cancer especially when she has to worry with all this.I hope u can get through the cancer thing and ur family back together again ,Where u all belong.Im not a racist person at all ,But I agree why is the NAACP just there for the black race???I really do hope Mr.McNeil is set free.He sounds like he is a very good man.

Monday, June 18, 2012 at 1:12 PM
Wilson CH said...

Why was this rally held at the Wilson NC Courthouse? This is a Cobb County, Georgia case involving Georgia residents in events that happened entirely in Georgia. The North Carolina Court System has nothing to do with this case. Your protest might have more effect 400 miles Southwest of here, say perhaps in Marietta.

Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 12:55 PM I said.. said...

All I have to say is free McNeil he deserves justice this man was on his property and if someone on your property trying to cause confusion and you already called the police before the incident happen then you suppose to protect yourself and family. Unfortunately it took a long time for the police to get there at this residence to solve the whole situation.

Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 10:12 AM Hunter! said...

Zimmerman called 911 and described a suspicious looking black man down the street. Martin never entered anyone's yard or made contact with anyone. From the reports about his telephone conversation with his girlfriend, martin saw Zimmerman and he started walking away from Zimmerman's house. Zimmerman told his to the 911 operator and said that he was going to follow him. That is when the operator said "we don't need you to do that". Zimmerman did not follow the operator’s instructions and pursued Martin and ultimately caused the incident. Martin was not defending himself. He should have never left his residence and should have never confronted Martin. He went hunting and killed his prey.

Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 12:13 AM Winston said...

Shannon...why do YOU, along with most anti-Zimmerman folk LIE about the facts? The 911 op said in the followup to Zimmerman stating he was following..."we don't need you to do that." Do you have an agenda or is the truth not within your grasp?

Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 9:58 PM Shannon said...

Phil I have to disagree with you...while I think the NAACP is completely ridiculous; this case is not like Zimmerman and Martins! Zimmerman went after Martin when he was told not to by the 911 dispatcher! He was acting as something he wasn't...a police officer!

Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 11:11 AM Pro Gun! said...

I support both Zimmerman and McNeil for defending themselves. But all I know about either case is what I have heard through the news which is suspect. I certainly do not agree with the NAACP for always only supporting the black person involved. We are Americans! We should be past this color thing by now!! In combat, there is only red, white, and blue!

Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 9:15 AM To Phil said...

I was thinking the exact same thing!

Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 8:50 AM Strange timing said...

Where was the NAACP five years ago? Why do they wait so long to help? Did some new evidence appear?

Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 7:42 AM Really? said...

"A high school athletic and academic all-star"
Heckuva basketball player, no doubt .... but academic all-star?
I graduated with John. I guess my Rhodes scholarship must have gotten lost in the mail.

Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 2:05 AM Phil said...

This sounds EXACTLY like the George Zimmerman case, except the NAACP want Zimmerman in prison and McNeil to walk free??? What gives???

Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 1:42 AM
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