McNeil was convicted of murdering Brian Epp in December of 2005 but today he entered a guilty plea to a manslaughter charge to end an appeal pending before the Georgia Supreme Court. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and 13 years probation on the the manslaughter charge but he 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,” NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said in a statement.
Back in 2006, McNeil was convicted and sentenced to life in prison despite arguing that he shot Epp in self-defense. The case sparked national attention over the Stand Your Ground law and how it is applied to Blacks and Whites who use it as their legal defense. Last fall, a judge ruled that he deserved a new trial because his original attorney did not inform jurors they could acquit him if he shot in defense of his home or his son. Stand Your Ground can apply to the defense of someone else as well as himself. McNeil plead guilty to manslaughter instead, helping the prosecution to avoid a costly trial.
Unfortunately, McNeil’s wife died last week. She was laid to rest this weekend in North Carolina.
Here is some background behind the shooting:
McNeil and Epp had a long-running feud that intensified as Epp was wrapping up construction of the house for the McNeils. The McNeils moved in and planned to spend their first night in their new home on Dec. 5, even though Epp had a few items still on his to-do list.
McNeil never denied he shot Epp in the driveway of his new home. He said he was rushing home because his 19-year-old son had called him to report a strange man in their back yard had threatened to cut him with a box cutter.
McNeil was on the telephone with the 911 when he pulled into his neighborhood. He told the 911 operator to send someone quickly because he intended to confront Epp, according to a recording played in court.
The operator urged him to stay in his car and wait for police.
“When you get a call from your kids that somebody’s got a knife pulled on them, threatening them, the first thing you want to do is get home and protect your kid, ” John McNeil testified. “So I said I was going to whip his ass.”
McNeil got out of his car with a gun and confronted Epp as the contractor walked over from the house next door. Witnesses said Epp didn’t stop even after McNeil fired a shot into the ground. The second time he fired, McNeil shot the contractor in the face with a hollow-point bullet.
Because Epp had a knife in his front pants pocket McNeil’s lawyer argued then and now that the shooting was justified.
McNeil will serve his 13-year probation in North Carolin. When asked how it felt to be a free man after walking out of jail, McNeil said, “I just want to breathe freedom.”