How A Black Businessman Was Sentenced To Life In Prison For A Likely Self-Defense Killing

When police investigated the death of Brian Epp, they determined that John McNeil was merely acting in self-defense when he shot Epp for allegedly loitering on his property, threatening him and his 19-year-old son with a knife. They didn’t charge him with any crime. But 274 days later, McNeil was prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison, theGrio explains:

The case relates to events on December 6, 2005, when McNeil received a distress call from his teenage son that a man was lurking around in their backyard.

“John called 911 and told the police he was on his way home,” said his wife, who is living with advanced stage cancer. According to testimony, the man, Brian Epp, a hired contractor with whom McNeil had past disagreements, had already pulled out a knife on McNeil’s 19-year-old son.

When McNeil returned home, Epp, who is white, refused to leave, despite being asked several times. McNeil and eye-witnesses testified that he fired a warning shot but when Epp charged towards him with his hand in his pocket he shot out in self-defense.

Witnesses corroborated this account, as well as McNeil’s fear of Epps. A couple who had also hired Epps testified at trial that they carried a gun around him because of his threatening behavior. Nevertheless, McNeil, a black property owner who has now been in jail for almost six years for the death of a white trespasser, lost his appeal before the Supreme Court in 2008.

McNeil’s case is, in many respects, the mirror image of the infamous shooting of Trayvon Martin earlier this year. In Florida, a “Stand Your Ground” law that often enables shooters to literally get away with murder initially protected George Zimmerman from prosecution, although he has since been charged with second-degree murder, and Zimmerman could still escape justice because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. McNeil, on the other hand, has now lost six years of his life in spite of what appears to be a much clearer case of self-defense under Georgia’s “Castle Doctrine,” a more limited law that permits the use of deadly force to defend one’s own property.

Civil rights groups are now calling for McNeil’s immediate release, pointing to the Trayvon Martin case to show that laws intended to apply equally to all races discriminate against African Americans whether they are the alleged perpetrator or the victim.

“We are victims at both ends of the gun,” said Marcus Coleman, who leads the Atlanta chapter of the National Action Network.

The mayor of McNeil’s hometown, Wilson, N.C., has also joined in calling for McNeil’s release. In a letter to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, he said, “I have read the entire trial transcript and I believe it’s clear that John only acted to protect his family.”

In the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion, the one dissenting justice, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, wrote unequivocally that McNeil should have been protected by Georgia’s “Castle doctrine,” writing: “the evidence was overwhelming in showing that a reasonable person in McNeil’s shoes would have believed that he was subject to an imminent physical attack by an aggressor possessing a knife and that it was necessary to use deadly force to protect himself from serious bodily injury or a forcible felony.”

McNeil, who had no other criminal history, has a second appeal pending. If he loses that, he will have to file a clemency request with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.

“The John McNeil case is unique in the Southern and American criminal justice system,” said Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, in an interview with theGrio. “You just can’t find a case where a black man on his property shoots a white armed aggressor and the black man is defended by two senior white detectives, white eyewitnesses, a black female Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, all who challenge the conclusion of and prosecution by a white DA.”