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John McNeil hasn’t been able to sleep over the past several weeks. He wakes up nearly every hour — his mind churning over the anticipation of returning to a place he once he called home.
It’s a trip he knows he needs to make. And he will be bringing with him a book telling his story about how the criminal justice system robbed him of several years of his life and the fight that ensued to free him from a Georgia prison in 2013.
“Just the mere thought of going back to Georgia,” McNeil said. “The emotions for me have been up and down. Getting out of prison has left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. All the bad things that happened to me overshadowed all that was good for me in Georgia.”
McNeil was sentenced to life in prison in Georgia after he fatally shot a man who had trespassed on his property and threatened both him and his son with a knife in his own backyard in 2005. McNeil was released from a Georgia prison in 2013 after serving more than six years of that life sentence thanks to a grassroots campaign led by his late wife, Anita, who died of cancer 10 days prior to his release, the NAACP and leaders in Wilson. McNeil had cited the Georgia stand-your ground law.
Like Georgia, North Carolina has a stand-your-ground law that allows homeowners or lawful occupants to use deadly force against intruders if they fear for their lives or safety.
‘SHARING THE STORY’
On Saturday, McNeil will be the guest speaker at an event in Columbus County, Georgia where he will debut his book, “Breathe Freedom: The John McNeil Story,” published by Georgia-based Unique Euphony Publishing Group. The event coincides with the publishing company’s 10th anniversary. The nearly 300-page book will be available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A Wilson reception for the book release is in the works, McNeil said.
“I think it’s going to do a lot of good things,” McNeil said about the book. “It’s going to open some eyes to a lot of people.”
McNeil said the book is filled with many stories including the love he had for his late wife, who encouraged him to never give up on the fight to gain his freedom. The book also explores his journey through the criminal justice system and delves into his case, which he describes as an injustice.
“There was so much going on, stand-your-ground, injustices going on around the country ... ,” McNeil said about that time period. “We had innocent people before me and still after me going to jail ... the law is supposed to protect them.”
McNeil and his supporters contend he never should have been prosecuted for shooting the man, Brian Epp, in his own yard. McNeil had also warned Epp to back away and leave his home after he and his son were threatened that day.
McNeil, who is black, fired a warning shot, but Epp, who was white, lunged forward at McNeil, who then fired a second shot.
McNeil said the book about the case is also fulfilling a promise he made to Anita, who told him to tell his story.
“It’s a true story and they can not only read it but research it and do something about it and join in with me, because there’s going to be a movement,” he said. “There’s a lot of injustices that are going on in this country and in this world and so many people want to turn a blind eye to it.”
‘I HAD LOST MY HERO’
Police found that McNeil did indeed act in self-defense after authorities interviewed him, his son and an eyewitness who corroborated the account. But nearly a year later, the district attorney charged McNeil with murder.
McNeil, who was a successful businessman in Georgia and who had just purchased his home in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, couldn’t believe it. He was shocked, he said.
Police even testified on McNeil’s behalf during the trial, where a jury found him guilty.
There were only two black women on the jury. Those women would later write a letter to McNeil’s wife to apologize for the verdict. They believed he was innocent, but they felt pressured by other jurors in the room, he said.
McNeil later appealed his case and won after a judge granted him a new trial. An appellate review found problems with the trial including that jurors weren’t allowed to hear that Epp had a prior felony methamphetamine drug conviction and police also found marijuana in Epp’s vehicle on the day of the shooting.
Anita McNeil wanted her husband to come home because he was needed for his family. He reached an agreement with the district attorney in Cobb County, Georgia, that allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge and be released for time served.
Anita died before he was released. When McNeil returned home, he had to bury his wife, which he said was heartbreaking.
“I didn’t want to accept that Anita had passed,” McNeil said. “I wanted to hug her and tell her ‘Thank you for being that one pillar of strength I needed when I was in prison.’ I had lost my hero.”
A PROMISE AND THE FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
McNeil said Anita, to whom he was married for more than two decades, was a driving force in his decision to pursue his freedom. When the doctor said she only had a few weeks to live because the cancer had spread, McNeil remembers vividly some of their last phone calls while he was in prison.
“It had progressed so bad,” McNeil said. “She couldn’t hardly talk. They only thing I could hear was her breathing.”
But she also made McNeil promise her something.
“Promise me you will get out, you will fight for yourself to gain your freedom back to your status and you will take care of our sons,” Anita told him.
And that’s what he did, he said, through the help of many and his faith in God.
When he was released from prison in 2013, he recalled the video and still cameras and the rush of television and newspaper reporters.
They asked him what he wanted do now that he had been set free.
“I just want to breathe freedom,” McNeil told them.
GIVING BACK TO WILSON
When McNeil returned home to Wilson, he vowed to give back to the community that stood by him through it all. McNeil was hired by Wilson County Schools, where he works with youth who have been adjudicated by the courts and are in an alternative school setting at Daniels Learning Center.
He said when he was released from prison, he didn’t want to sit around and feel sorry for himself.
“I wanted to jump in and help give back to those who have given to me,” he said.
He said the youth have been a tremendous blessing in his life and he believes he’s making a difference in their lives by mentoring and teaching them each day.
“I’m fortunate to be in their presence every day because seven years ago, I was behind a wall,” McNeil said.
McNeil said he hopes the youth will learn a lesson from his own journey — never give up.
“God gives us what we need when we need it,” he said. “And I think about how God has positioned me. This is an amazing job for me to give back to the kids.”
McNeil said he’s also indebted to those in the Wilson community who believed in him throughout it all.
“I thank God for blessing me with the support of this town,” he said. “The support was so great. The people here in Wilson mean so much to me in so many ways. When I was at ground zero and needed to be nurtured, they nurtured me back to strength and health.”