Georgia’s Attorney General is challenging a court’s ruling that a Black homeowner received an unfair trial and conviction on a charge of killing a White intruder.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens appealed to the Supreme Court a Sept. 25 ruling by Baldwin County, Ga. Judge Hulane George, which held that an unfair trial led to the conviction of African-American homeowner John McNeil on charges of murder—an act which McNeil claimed was in self-defense.

George ruled in favor of McNeil’s appeal of the conviction, saying ineffective legal counsel undercut his claim of a justified killing. Among other things, George said McNeil’s lawyer “failed to request charges based on the theories of defense of habitation and/or defense of property.”

Olens filed his appeal of George’s ruling on Oct. 17, saying the appeal was both “warranted and appropriate.” Olens claimed that because a jury did not find McNeil acted in self-defense, they would not find that he acted to defend his home under the “habitation” theory cited by George.

“The main question on appeal is whether, if the jury had been charged on defense of habitation, there is a reasonable probability that the result would have been different,” Olens wrote. “We will argue on appeal that it is unreasonable to think that a jury, after finding that Mr. McNeil did not act in self-defense, would instead find that he was acting in defense of his home.”

McNeil is serving a life sentence for the Dec. 6, 2005 shooting of Mike Epps, a White contractor, whom McNeil said unlawfully entered his property, threatened his teenage son with a knife, and charged the homeowner even after McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground.

Cobb County. Ga. detectives did not immediately arrest McNeil after the slaying, and the lead detective in the case testified during McNeil’s original 10-day trial that he did not believe the homeowner was guilty of a crime. Still, the jury convicted McNeil of murder.

Olens, in his appeal, allowed that “his is an emotional case,” but he added, “It is not our job to second-guess the jury.”

The NAACP had campaigned for McNeil’s freedom, even sending a petition with 18,000 signatures urging Olens not to pursue an appeal, and condemned the attorney general’s decision.

“John McNeil’s six-year-long nightmare should have ended this month,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement. “This appeal is a shameful attempt to stoke the flames of a case that should have never been opened in the first place. A man has a right to defend his family.”

Jealous and other NAACP officials said the organization will continue to work with McNeil’s wife, Anita McNeil, and other allies to secure his freedom.

“We had hoped Attorney General Olens would have decided to stand down,” said NAACP North Carolina State Conference President the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. “Now we are hopeful that the Supreme Court in its wisdom will heed the new evidence before them and stand up.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO