Can a Black Man Defend Himself at Home?

The NAACP and activists fight for the release of a black Georgia man who shot a man on his lawn.

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NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, second from left (Charles Cook/NAACP)

(The Root) -- Members of the NAACP -- including its president and CEO, Benjamin Todd Jealous -- along with local politicians and other activists, addressed a small crowd of journalists in Atlanta on Monday in an effort to bring attention to the case of a black Georgia man serving a life sentence for killing a white man who was trespassing on his property.   

Despite Kennesaw, Ga., police detectives declaring in 2005 that John McNeil, 46, acted in self-defense, Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head decided a year later to try the case. McNeil was sentenced in November 2006.

"If this can happen to John McNeil, then it can happen to [Georgia NAACP President] Ed DuBose, it can happen to William Barber, it can happen to Ben Jealous. It can happen to any black man standing out here or standing anywhere in America, no matter how much good you've done or how right you are," the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, told the crowd in front of the Georgia State Capitol. Barber, a longtime friend of McNeil's, along with Jealous and other NAACP members, went to see him in prison before the press conference.

The "it" relates to events that took place Dec. 6, 2005, when McNeil arrived home after his teenage son called him about an unfamiliar man lurking about their property. According to testimony, the man, Brian Epp, a hired contractor with whom McNeil had past difficulties, had already pulled a knife on the teenager.

Epp refused to leave, and McNeil, who had called 911, fired a warning shot into the ground. Epp then charged toward McNeil while reaching into his pocket. McNeil fatally shot him in the head at close range. Court documents state that a pocketknife was clipped inside Epp's pants pocket. McNeil's neighbors who witnessed the incident backed his story.

Kennesaw police detectives investigated the case, decided that McNeil had acted in self-defense and didn't charge him. McNeil's self-defense claim is supported by Georgia's "castle doctrine" law, which allows an individual to use deadly force to protect his or her home, or anyone inside it, from a violent trespasser.

McNeil and his family thought the worst was over, until Pat Head decided nearly a year later to pursue prosecution. Although the Kennesaw Police Department refused to arrest McNeil, the Cobb County Sheriff's Office did, under Head's advisement, according to NAACP members.

During the trial, McNeil's neighbors, the two senior detectives investigating the case and a couple who said that they felt threatened by Epp when they hired him to do work all testified in McNeil's defense. All of those individuals are white.

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Despite their testimony, McNeil was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. An appeal motion was filed, and in 2008, six of the seven justices of the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the conviction. The sole dissenting voice was then-Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who found the case problematic. 

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