John McNeil, a Georgia African American man who is serving a life sentence for shooting and killing a White trespasser on his property, could go free after a Georgia Superior Court judge ruled Sept. 25 that ineffective legal counsel undercut his claim of a justified killing.

Baldwin County Judge Hulane George ruled in favor of the motion to free McNeil, saying that McNeil’s attorney, among other things, “failed to request charges based on the theories of defense of habitation and/or defense of property.”

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has 30 days to appeal the judge’s decision. If he doesn’t, the convicted man would walk free.

“I know we still have a journey in front of us, but today we smile, for we have won,” said McNeil’s wife Anita, a cancer patient, who recently visted her husband for the first time in nearly two years. “We are thankful first to GOD and then to the judge. She looked at the case and saw it for what it is…. We also thank all the people who have stood up and are standing up to support us. We will continue our fight and we won’t stop until we have freedom for John.”

McNeil is serving a life sentence for the 2006 slaying of Mike Epps, a White contractor who had been working on the McNeil home. On the day in question, McNeil returned to his Cobb County home after his son called to report that Epps had unlawfully entered their property and had threatened him with a knife.
After calling the police, McNeil confronted Epps, asking him to leave their home, and later fired a warning shot. Eye witnesses affirmed that Epps was belligerent and continued advancing on McNeil, who eventually shot and killed the intruder.

George cited several concerns with the defense’s handling of the case. The incident was a clear-cut application of the state’s “castle doctrine,” which allows a homeowner to use force in defending his/her home or family from a violent intruder, George said. And the jury should have been instructed about that policy.

“If the so-called ‘castle doctrine’ means anything, it is that a homeowner like McNeil, confronted with a hostile adversary with the clear intent to ‘offer personal violence’ to both him and his teenage son, can use deadly force when he is backed up to his home and that adversary is charging directly at him and reaching for a weapon, all after McNeil fired a warning shot in his immediate presence,” the judge wrote.

The NAACP has been agitating for McNeil’s release, saying the case was a clear example of the inequitable application of self-defense laws across the country.
The nation’s oldest civil rights group has sent the attorney general a petition with 14,500 signatures, asking him not to appeal the judge’s decision.
“This is the first step towards righting the wrong that Cobb County made when it prosecuted a father for defending his family on his own property,” stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “We are urging the state to not appeal this decision. John has spent years in prison, separated from the family he protected, because a district attorney running for reelection decided to prosecute John 270 days after two police detectives ruled his case self defense.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO