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Family recounts Anita McNeil's final days
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Family recounts Anita McNeil's final days

Anita McNeil fought more during the past six years than most do in a lifetime. She had two battles, one to free her husband from a Georgia prison where he is serving a life sentence and one with cancer.

Anita, 47, died Saturday afternoon at Wilson Medical Center.

Anita, who was affectionately called Toodie, was surrounded by her family and friends when she passed away.

Anita’s family and friends sat together Sunday afternoon and talked exclusively with The Wilson Times about her strength, courage, faith and the fight she waged until her last breath.

"I have never in my whole life met any person so determined. She was so strong even though her body was weakened,” said Pat Higgs, Anita’s best friend for 40 years. "She talked to us until she couldn’t talk to us any more.”

Even in her last hours, Higgs said, when Anita’s heart literally stopped, her heart then began beating once again.

Anita McNeil spent her final weeks waiting and hoping that her husband, John McNeil, would be freed from 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.

"I am still fighting — we’re still standing,” Anita said in her final interview from a Raleigh hospital in mid-January. "I’m not going to ever give up. The focus is John.”

"I don’t want people to forget about John,” Anita said. "I have not given up.”

Family members had hoped Anita would be able to see John McNeil one last time before she died.

Tracy Dew, Anita’s youngest sister, said she believes Anita was concerned because she could hear Higgs crying.

"I told her to go ahead and rest,” said Claudette Howell, Anita’s oldest sister. "I told her, ‘Don’t worry; Pat’s going to be OK.’ I told her we were all there, and we would continue — she needed the rest.

"When she did, she just went away. She even closed her eyes.”

Dew said although Anita was in severe pain, she was still herself.

"She needed us to keep moving her, and the nurse came in and moved her head and she wanted us to move her head again,” Tracy Dew said, smiling. "Pat said, ‘Can you show me how to do it?’ and she said, ‘Let Tracy do it.’ She knew what she wanted.”

Howell said Anita talked with them on Friday, but by Saturday she was tired and not talking much.

"I’ve watched my sister in this battle, and no matter what came her way, she fought for what she believed was right,” Howell said. "I used to tell her to slow down. I would tell her she needed to rest. But she would look at me and say she had to keep on. She would say, ‘I’ve got this,” and then tell me I was just like momma.”



There would be times when Anita would tell her that she had slowed down her activities, but it never lasted for more than a day or so, Howell said.

"She was always strong-willed or some would say stubborn,” said Betty Dew, Anita’s mother. "She would wash clothes, and I knew she was in pain, but she would say ‘Momma, let me do this.’”

Betty Dew has supported her daughter throughout the entire ordeal, she said.

"When this whole thing started, I said to her, ‘Toodie, life is a fight, and that’s what we’re going to do — fight,’” Betty Dew remembers. "‘That’s the only thing I’m going to tell you to do is fight.’ And she did.”

Higgs said it was nothing for her to get a phone call from Anita at 3 a.m.

"She would call me as she was writing a speech and ask me what I thought of this line or that line, and I would say to her, ‘Go to sleep,’” Higgs said. "She was working for her husband, and there was no stopping her. She was determined to fight until he was free. I’m going to miss all of those late night phone calls.”

A lot of people might have given up by now, but not Anita, Higgs said.

"I know many women who would have thrown in the towel,” Higgs said. "But she was a stand-by-your-man kind of girl.”

Family and friends said the incarceration of John McNeil and Anita McNeil’s cancer stripped everything away from this family.

"They lost it all,” Howell said. "They lost their income, house, cars. You name it, they lost it.”

They didn’t lose their faith, Howell said.

Anita did get to talk to her husband over the phone before she died.

"He told her that he loved her,” Dew said. "He told her they would meet again.”



Family spokesman Frank Jones said the last words Anita spoke to him Friday was, "We will fight.”

Jones said he wants everyone to continue this fight for freedom for John McNeil.

"Anita fought for him to her last breath,” Jones said. "I want people to remember John, and I want people to remember Anita.”

Higgs said support from the community should not come to a halt because Anita died.

"The family still needs us,” Higgs said. "They need our prayers, our strength, our financial support, our words of encouragement.”

Higgs said although she was in tears, she whispered in Anita’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.”



According to Jones, 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.

Statements from McNeil say he 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, and McNeil got out of the car, leaving the car door open, asked Epp to back up and 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 Epps’ 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 is invoking Georgia’s castle laws.



McNeil’s attorney, Mark Yuracheck, filed a habeas and asking for a new trial for McNeil, and the habeas was granted.

The state of Georgia appealed that decision, and now the Georgia Supreme Court will decide if the habeas will be upheld.

"As I understand, it could go on the Georgia Supreme court docket pretty soon,” Yuracheck said.

If the Supreme Court upholds the habeas, McNeil will get a new trial.

In the notice of appeal, Georgia Attorney General Samuel S. Olens said he looked at the transcript and reviewed the habeas court order and concluded an appeal was in order.

"In deciding whether to appeal, our role is limited to determining whether the habeas court correctly decided the legal issues. It is not our job to second guess the jury,” the notice of appeal states.

The notice of appeal says this is an emotional case, with one side arguing McNeil was defending his son and himself, while the other side argued McNeil had a long-running feud with Epp.

Olens calls McNeil’s former attorney a "veteran defense attorney” and said he vigorously pursued a finding of self-defense at the trial, and the jury rejected the defense.

The McNeil case has drawn widespread attention, which continues to grow.

"Moments before she passed, I prayed with her and her family in the hospital, and told them how much we loved them and how we were better for knowing her,” said NAACP president, the Rev. William Barber, who worked with the McNeil family as a civil rights battle grew from Georgia to Wilson to free John McNeil. "Though she could not respond, we are sure she heard us in the spirit.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Arrangements are being handled by Haskins Funeral Home of Goldsboro. | 265-7847
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Tuesday, February 05, 2013 at 11:45 PM
The Truth said...

The cruelty and injustices of our so-called judicial system is so very clear, now more than ever.

Monday, February 04, 2013 at 6:06 PM
Praying said...

I have been following this story as well, and I am so sorry to hear of the loss of such a fine woman. She fought hard on earth for husband, family and herself. May God wrap His arms around this family and help them through this difficult loss and I pray that God also open the eyes of the GA courts and see the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. McNeil. Praying for this entire family.

Monday, February 04, 2013 at 11:34 AM
Wow... said...

what an amazing woman she was! May God touch this family and help them through this difficult time, and bless her husband who didn't get to see her before she passed away. Prayers to you all!

Monday, February 04, 2013 at 9:12 AM
Follower said...

I followed this story everytime it was on the news or website.. I am so very much Sorry for the Lost of this Strong Willed woman. My Prayers go out to her Sons her Husband .. and the Rest of the Family

Monday, February 04, 2013 at 8:55 AM
Lisa said...

I did not know Mrs. McNeil but I have followed her story in the Wilson Times. What a strong lady!! God Bless her family during this time and the days ahead. Praying for the release of Mr. McNeil. RIP Mrs. McNeil.

Monday, February 04, 2013 at 7:59 AM Class Of 88 said...

Prayers going out to family

Sunday, February 03, 2013 at 12:12 PM Deborah Hammonds said...

I'm so sorry to hear the news about Anita's passing. I will always remember her as strong and determined. May God bless her family and soon see the release of John.
Deborah Hammonds
Lawton, Oklahoma

Sunday, February 03, 2013 at 10:18 AM
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