For the past few years, Anita McNeil fought battles on two fronts: one to free her husband John McNeil from a Georgia prison, where she believes he is being unjustly incarcerated, and the other to defeat her cancer.
“When this whole thing started, I said to her, ‘Life is a fight, and that’s what we’re going to do — fight,’” Betty Dew, Anita McNeil’s mother, told The Wilson (N.C.) Times. “‘That’s the only thing I’m going to tell you to do is fight.’ And she did.”
On Feb. 2, John McNeil remained in jail despite a judge’s ruling that he committed justified homicide in protection of his home and family. On that same day, Anita McNeil, 47, lost her fight with cancer and died, surrounded by loved ones and supporters at Wilson Medical Center in North Carolina.
“Our warrior sister, Anita, has transitioned to be with God,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, NAACP North Carolina State Conference president. “I had just prayed with her and the family. We told her we all loved her and were better because we knew her. She could not talk back, but I'm confident she heard it in the spirit. Now as she reigns with the angels, let us imitate her courage and strength and commitment to do right until our day comes.”
Even as McNeil underwent chemotherapy to treat her second bout with cancer, she travelled across the country speaking out on behalf of her husband. In her last few weeks, family said she kept hoping he would be freed from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for shooting and killing a man who had entered his yard and threatened him and his son.
“I am still fighting — we’re still standing,” Anita said in her final interview from a Raleigh, N.C. hospital in mid-January, according to the Times. “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.”
The pair last saw each other for three hours in September after an 18-month separation.
NAACP officials, who have worked with McNeil to free her husband, expressed sorrow over her passing.
“Anita’s love for her husband knew no limits, and she was relentless in her campaign for his freedom,” NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said in a statement. “Even as she battled illness she shone with the radiance of her righteous cause. Her energy was enough to reduce an audience to tears and then lift them back up again determined to join her fight to secure justice for her husband John McNeil.”
NAACP officials also vowed to continue the fight to free Mr. McNeil.
“Anita was a woman of boundless faith,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said. “She had no doubt that the arc of the universe would bend toward justice for her husband. We will carry on the torch of her passion and double down on our demand for John McNeil’s freedom.”
In 2006, John McNeil was convicted of shooting Brian Epp. While on McNeil’s property. Epp threatened McNeil’s son with a boxcutter and charged at John. Investigating officers concluded and eyewitnesses corroborated that McNeil did not commit a crime, yet nearly one year after the incident, he was charged with murder and eventually sentenced to life in prison.
On Sept. 25, a Georgia Superior Court judge granted McNeil’s petition for habeas corpus based on ineffective counsel, including the fact that the attorney did not argue for the application of the “castle doctrine,”—one’s right to defend his home and family from intruders.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens chose to appeal the court ruling, which would have granted McNeil a new trial, and McNeil’s family awaits a decision from the Georgia Supreme Court on that appeal.
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