John McNeil walked out of a Georgia jail Feb. 12, fulfilling the death-bed wish of his wife, Anita.

Anita McNeil died 10 days earlier from breast cancer, after years of fighting for her husband’s release from a life sentence for the 2005 slaying of a White man who McNeil claimed had threatened his son and posed an imminent threat to his home.

Walking out of the Cobb County Adult Detention center just before 2 p.m., McNeil told reporters his initial goal was to “breathe freedom,” according the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But, his joy at his release was swamped in grief over the loss of his wife, he added.

“This has been a sad time for me,” he said.

McNeil agreed in a plea bargain to a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison and 13 years probation on the manslaughter charge, but was credited for time served and released.

“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,” said NAACP Board Chairman Roslyn Brock in a statement. “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.”

In 2006, McNeil was sentenced to life for shooting contractor Brian Epp on his property after Epp threatened his son with a box cutter and charged at McNeil with the weapon in his pocket. Witnesses said Epp was the aggressor, and the investigating police officers concluded that McNeil had not committed a crime. But, 294 days later, he was charged, convicted and sent to prison.

The NAACP championed McNeil’s cause, saying his case was an example of how “stand your ground” laws, as a legal defense, were unfairly applied to Black defendants compared to Whites.

Last September, a Georgia Superior Court judge granted McNeil’s petition for habeas corpus based on ineffective counsel, noting that, among other things, McNeil’s trial attorney, “failed to request charges based on the theories of defense of habitation and/or defense of property.”

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens appealed the ruling, an appeal made superfluous by McNeil’s plea.

New Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said he believed justice was done.

“I felt legally and factually the case was voluntary manslaughter,” he was quoted as saying by the Journal-Constitution. “It’s a tragic case on both sides of the aisle. It was something I felt needed to be resolved.”

NAACP officials say they are now trying to wipe away the criminal conviction altogether.

“Now that John is free we are committed to completely clearing his name,” stated NAACP Georgia State Conference President Edward Dubose. “We must put an end to this unequal justice system that forces African Americans to take guilty pleas even when they are innocent.”

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“Anita McNeil, Wife of Wrongly Imprisoned Ga. Man, Dies at 47”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO