John McNeil, sent to prison for life for killing his building contractor in 2005, may be freed next week because he is expected to plead to the lesser crime of manslaughter to end a legal fight now before the Georgia Supreme Court over whether he was protecting himself and his son at the time.
McNeil is scheduled to go before a Cobb County Superior Court judge on Tuesday, two days after the funeral for his wife Anita who died of breast cancer on Saturday.
McNeil is expected plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and to be sentenced to 20 years, to serve seven of them in prison and the rest on probation. He will get credit for the time he has already spent in prison so he could be freed immediately even though the wife of the man he killed, Brian Epp, objects.
The case is back before a Cobb County judge because of a decision last year by a judge in Baldiwn County, where McNeil was in prison, that he did not get a fair trial and should get another one. The state attorney general challenged that decision to the Georgia Supreme Court, where the case is pending.
It came out during testimony during the original trial that McNeil and Epp had a long-running feud over some of the work done on the house Epp was building for the McNeils. They were expecting to spend their first night in their new house on Dec, 6, 2005, even though there were still a few things remaining on Epp’s list to finish the house.
While the matter was pending before the Supreme Court, McNeil and prosecutors could resolve case with a plea, which McNeil is planning to enter on Tuesday, according to his lawyer.
The case received little attention initially but received national media coverage last year following the Baldwin County judge’s decision.
McNeil never denied he shot Epp in the driveway of his new home. McNeil said he was defending his home and family because the contractor had a knife in his pocket and continued to charge him even after the homeowner fired a warning shot into the ground.
Cobb County police detectives did not charge McNeil immediately after the Dec. 6, 2005, shooting. But a year later, then-Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head secured an indictment for murder and McNeil went on trial a few months later.
On that afternoon John McNeil’s 19-year-old son called to tell his father there was a strange man in their backyard who had pulled a box cutter on him and threatened to cut him.
McNeil left for home, calling 911 as he drove and telling the operator it was most likely Epp. 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.
Instead 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, killing him.
McNeil’s lawyers argued then and now that he was justified to shoot because Epp had already threatened his son with a knife and then charged McNeil in his own front yard even after McNeil fired a warning shot.
Some of the jurors have said they saw the shooting as premeditated because of the threat he relayed to the 911 operator.
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