NAACP urges state not to fight Cobb prisoner’s appeal in 2005 trespasser killing

The NAACP on Saturday urged Georgia’s attorney general not to appeal a Baldwin County judge’s decision that could free a Cobb County man serving a life sentence for killing an armed trespasser seven years ago.

Baldwin County Judge Hulane E. George earlier this week cited several errors and omissions in John McNeil’s 2006 trial in granting McNeil’s habeas appeal that he was wrongly convicted.

State Attorney General Sam Olens has 30 days to appeal George’s ruling, and if he doesn’t appeal, McNeil should be freed, McNeil’s attorney, Mark Yurachek, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Derek Turner, a spokesman for the NAACP, said in an email Saturday that his organization had sent Olens a petition with 14,567 signatures urging the attorney general not to pursue an appeal in the case.

“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,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous said. “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.”

Police cleared McNeil of any charges in 2005, saying McNeil acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Brian Epp. Nine months later prosecutors charged McNeil with murder, and a Cobb County jury convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison in 2006.

Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for Olens, said the attorney general’s office wouldn’t comment on the case because it is still pending.

In her ruling, George cited several errors and omissions in the 2006 trial and subsequent appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court that she said prejudiced the jury.

Primary among the errors the judge pointed out was that the jury wasn’t properly informed of what rights McNeil had to protect himself and his then-teenage son from someone threatening them with a deadly weapon.

“The Court therefore concludes that counsel’s error was both significant and impactful upon McNeil’s case, to the point where it was prejudiced thereby,” George wrote.

McNeil’s conviction drew national attention as members of the NAACP staged several protests. McNeil is African-American and the man he fatally shot was white.

Recently, some have compared McNeil’s plight to that of George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer who claimed he was standing his ground when he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February.

The circumstances, however, are different.

The incident happened in December 2005 at McNeil’s home near Kennesaw.

Epp, a contractor, had done work on the home, and was spotted one day by McNeil’s son in the backyard. When the 14-year-old confronted Epp about trespassing, the son said Epp waived a knife in the teen’s face and said, “Try and make me leave,” according to court documents.

When McNeil was called, he alerted police and rushed home, authorities said.

Once home, McNeil demanded several times that Epp leave the property, even firing a warning shot while backing away from him, according to court records.

When Epp lunged at McNeil, McNeil fired, witnesses told police.

Other aspects of the case the jury didn’t know about include:

  • Epp had been convicted of felony possession of methamphetamine.
  • The police found marijuana in Epp’s car on the day of the shooting.
  • Jurors weren’t obligated to convict him.

“The prejudice McNeil suffered from the jury not being instructed that he could be acquitted, based on his justified defense of his son, is manifest,” George said in her ruling. “So much of the defense’s evidence, and even counsel’s closing argument, focused on McNeil’s actions in defending his son that it would be difficult to envision a better example of prejudice when the jury returned to its deliberations without knowing that it was authorized to acquit McNeil based on his defense of a third party.”

Staff writer Mike Morris contributed to this article.

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