ATLANTA, GA – John McNeil, the Georgia man arrested and sentenced to life for defending his own home, has agreed to a plea bargain and a charge of voluntary manslaughter in court and was released from prison.
The NAACP has been involved in this case on the state, local and national levels for years. NAACP leaders made the following statements in reaction to his release:
"Today John McNeil walks out of prison a free man, though the damage has been done," stated NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock. "While we would have preferred John to be exonerated based on self-defense, we are thankful that he can return home to be with his two sons and start his life over. His release today is a bittersweet victory because he also returns home in sorrow following the recent death of his loving wife Anita who fought for his release until her last breath."
"The court’s decision is an acknowledgement that John McNeil was convicted in error, and that error took far too long to be rectified," stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. "No man – regardless of color – should have to go through such an ordeal. While the reduced charge is still too harsh, we are glad that he will be able to return home to his children."
"On the eve of Lent, and the 104th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP, which began as an organization fighting against the false and unjust convictions of African American men, the Georgia criminal justice system has engaged in a kind of partial repentance," stated NAACP North Carolina State Conference President Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. "While John pleaded to a lesser charge, the criminal justice system in Georgia and America still remains guilty of the greater charge of continuing disparities and inequities in the sentencing, convictions and imprisonment of African Americans, minorities and poor whites. While we are happy that John is free, we remain ever committed to continue the work of making our judicial system fair for all."
Barber continued: "The NAACP does not endorse violence, and none of us, especially John and his family, are happy about the loss of life. We pray for the Epps family.
"The George State Conference NAACP is relieved that John McNeil is free," stated NAACP Georgia State Conference President Edward Dubose. "It is clearly long overdue, considering that John McNeil’s only crime is defending his son and home while being black. While we celebrate John’s freedom we are equally saddened that Anita McNeil’s death occurred before John could walk free. Now that John is free we are committed to completely clearing his name. We must put an end to this unequal justice system that forces African Americans to take guilty pleas even when they are innocent."
In 2006, McNeil was convicted for shooting Brian Epp on his property after Mr. Epp threatened his son with a box cutter and charged at John, with the weapon in his pocket. Two white investigating officers concluded that McNeil did not commit a crime, but 294 days after the incident McNeil was charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison.
On September, 25, 2012 a Georgia Superior Court Judge granted McNeil’s petition for habeas corpus based on ineffective counsel, noting that, among other things, John’s trial attorney, "failed to request charges based on the theories of defense of habitation and/or defense of property." But Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens appealed the ruling and McNeil remains in prison. After today’s plea bargain, McNeil will remain on parole for 14 years.
McNeil’s wife Anita McNeil, who has been outspoken in support of her husband and criticism of his imprisonment, passed away earlier this month.
The campaign for John McNeil’s freedom was started by his local NAACP branch in Wilson, NC, which convinced the North Carolina NAACP, Georgia NAACP State Conference, Cobb County NAACP and national NAACP to join the fight.