The NAACP is demanding an overturned guilty verdict and the release from prison of John McNeil, an African-American man from Georgia whose life sentence for murder, advocates say, is an example of the unequal application of “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Some of the organization’s leaders visited the convicted man and met with prison officials Sept. 10 before holding a press conference to discuss his case.

“In visiting with John McNeil today, I am convinced even more now, than ever before that John McNeil should be free,” said Edward DuBose, Georgia NAACP State Conference president. “If the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law does not protect John McNeil, then ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws everywhere should be abolished.”

McNeil, a successful African American businessman in suburban Atlanta, Ga., was found guilty of aggravated assault and felony murder in 2006 in connection with the shooting death of Brian Epp, who McNeil says threatened him during a belligerent encounter on McNeil’s property.

Epp, a White contractor, had been commissioned to build a $450,000 custom home for the McNeils on the 500 block of Earlvine Way in Kennesaw, Ga. But, according to court testimony, the family had so many problems with Epp that they decided to end his role in building the house “to have him out of lives.”

At the closing on Nov. 8, 2005, they agreed that if Epp did not complete certain work within 10 days he would lose a particular sum of money, and he could not come on the property after the 10-day period expired. Epp did not complete the work.

However, about a month later, McNeil received a call from his son, who said that not only was Epp trespassing on the property, but had also threatened him with a knife. Rushing home to protect his son, McNeil reported the threat to 911 and reportedly told the operator that he was getting ready to “whip his (Epp’s) ass…so get the cops here now.”

On arriving home, McNeil took a semi-automatic handgun from his car’s glove compartment, loaded it and confronted Epp. The pair argued loudly, and while retreating from Epp’ advance, McNeil fired a shot into the ground and warned the intruder, “Back up, I am not playing with you.” As Epp continued his approach toward McNeil, the homeowner fired a fatal gunshot to Epp’s head.

Initially, investigating officers did not charge McNeil, concluding that Epp was the aggressor and that he was armed. An unopened knife was found in the dead man’s pocket. But 274 days later, a Cobb County district attorney–in the midst of a re-election campaign, according to the NAACP—charged McNeil with murder, and a jury found him guilty.

NAACP leaders say the verdict belied Georgia’s stance as a gun rights state, where the “Castle Doctrine,” allows residents to protect their home and family, without a duty to retreat, if they feel threatened on their property.

The decision, they say, echoes a pattern in which “stand your ground” laws are disproportionately applied to Blacks on both sides of the gun.

“Throughout his (John McNeil’s) life, he did what is right for his family and community but a district attorney did him wrong,” said North Carolina NAACP State Conference President Rev. William J. Barber II. “For most, it is impossible to believe that a man defending himself, his teenage son, his property from an armed aggressor, could be convicted of a crime. Unfortunately a man’s home is not his castle if that man is black in Georgia.”

An analysis conducted by the {Tampa Bay Times} earlier this year showed that defendants in Florida who employ the stand your ground defense are more successful when the victim is Black. In its examination of 200 applicable cases, the {Times} found that 73 percent of those who killed a Black person got of scotch free, compared to 59 percent of those who killed a White.

Last month, McNeil filed a motion with the Georgia Supreme Court asking for his conviction to be overturned, arguing that the case against him lacked sufficient evidence, among other things.

The NAACP is circulating a petition urging Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens not to pursue an appeal should the judge overturn McNeil’s verdict and sentence. The petition already has over 12,000 signatures.

Their efforts, said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, is being fuelled by an increased urgency because McNeil’s wife has cancer, which has prohibited her from visiting her husband for at least two years.

“With the return of his wife’s cancer and the discovery that it has spread, we are redoubling our efforts and exploring every possible avenue for hastening the correction of this grave mistake by the justice system and the freeing of John so that he can reunite with his family,” Jealous said.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO