(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.
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.
The irony is that Kennesaw — a predominantly white, conservative suburb 26 miles northwest of Atlanta where McNeil and his family lived — has a 30-year-old mandatory law requiring heads of households to own at least one firearm.
"As long as John McNeil is behind bars, it is not safe for a black person to defend their family and their home in the state of Georgia," Jealous told The Root.
Race has been mentioned as a factor in this case, but Jealous points out that throughout the case, there were white law-enforcement officials who sided with McNeil.
"Yes, this is about a white DA who did the wrong thing. But he overrode two white detectives who did the right thing," Jealous says. The speakers, who expressed their condolences for Epp's death, also compared McNeil's treatment to something that would have happened in the Jim Crow South.
The McNeil case may immediately remind people of Florida's 2005 "Stand your ground" self-defense law that allowed George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, to avoid arrest for more than a month after shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last February.
But Jealous, sharing that the NAACP has "grave concerns about 'Stand your ground,' " was quick to draw the line between the castle doctrine and "Stand your ground" laws.
" 'Stand your ground' laws are so broad that they allow people to racially profile with deadly force anywhere. The basic difference is that [the castle-doctrine law] allows you to protect your home. ['Stand your ground'] allows you to appoint yourself vigilante-in-chief. And that's what Zimmerman did," Jealous explained, saying that the NAACP is fine with self-defense.
He continued, adding that "self-defense would apply here, too. [It] is a lighter standard than either one of those [and] says if someone threatens you with lethal force and you try to get away and you can't get away, you can use lethal force to defend yourself.
"And what you heard them describe today is classic self-defense," Jealous said.
The first priority on the NAACP's list is to reunite McNeil with his wife, Anita, who has cancer. The illness, deemed terminal, has prevented her from seeing her husband for the last two years.
"It is very possible that John McNeil's wife could die while he's still trying to clear his name. She will now be flying down here with her mayor, who has arranged special transportation so that she could see her husband for what may be one last time," Jealous says. Anita McNeil lives in Wilson, N.C. McNeil's mother died less than a month ago.
Throughout the address, speakers portrayed McNeil as a family man and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps businessman who did everything right: He didn't have a criminal record, he volunteered in the community, he graduated from college and he took care of his family.
Jealous remains hopeful, believing that before this is over, they will have the support of prominent conservatives — including the National Rifle Association, or NRA, which the NAACP has reached out to, along with other gun-rights organizations — and that Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal will grant McNeil clemency.
"The heartbreaking thing is, here we are in the 21st century on the eve of the 150th-anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation," Jealous says, "and we still find ourselves defending black men [and] black people's most basic rights to protect their own lives."
Editor's note: The original article stated that Leah Ward Sears was the only African-American member of the Georgia Supreme Court when it upheld McNeil's conviction. In fact, there were two other black members of the court.