“Stand your ground” didn’t work so well for black man in Georgia

Update: McNeil has been released from prison in a plea deal that avoided a retrial in the error-filled case. It really just compounds the injustice, however. Click here and here for more details.

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Even before the Trayvon Martin case, African-Americans were well aware that measures such as “stand your ground” pose a danger to them due to unequal application of the laws. Salon writer Rania Khalek has written about a six-year-old case from Cobb County, Georgia–a suburb of Atlanta–that may serve as a textbook example of this:

Not too far from Sanford, Fla., a black man named John McNeil is serving a life sentence for shooting Brian Epp, a white man who trespassed and attacked him at his home in Georgia, another stand your ground state.

It all began in early 2005, when McNeil and his wife, Anita, hired Brian Epp’s construction company to build a new house in Cobb County, Ga. The McNeils testified that Epp was difficult to work with, which led to heated confrontations. They eventually decided to close on the house early to rid their lives of Epp, whom they found increasingly threatening. At the closing, both parties agreed that Epp would have 10 days to complete the work, after which he would stay away from the property, but he failed to keep up his end of the bargain.

On Dec. 6, 2005, John McNeil’s 15-year-old son, La’Ron, notified his dad over the phone that a man he didn’t recognize was lurking in the backyard. When La’Ron told the man to leave, an argument broke out. McNeil was still on the phone and immediately recognized Epp’s voice. According to La’Ron’s testimony, Epp pointed a folding utility knife at La’Ron’s face and said, “[w]hy don’t you make me leave?” at which point McNeil told his son to go inside and wait while he called 911 and headed home.

According to McNeil’s testimony, when he pulled up to his house, Epp was next door grabbing something from his truck and stuffing it in his pocket. McNeil quickly grabbed his gun from the glove compartment in plain view of Epp who was coming at him “fast.” McNeil jumped out of the car and fired a warning shot at the ground insisting that Epp back off. Instead of retreating, Epp charged at McNeil while reaching for his pocket, so McNeil fired again, this time fatally striking Epp in the head. (Epp was found to have a folding knife in his pocket, although it was shut.)

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After a neighbor across the street who witnessed the encounter corroborated McNeil’s account, police determined that it was a case of self-defense and did not charge him in the death. Nevertheless, almost a year later Cobb County District Attorney Patrick Head decided to prosecute McNeil for murder. In 2006, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Apparently, outside pressure, including anonymous letters, played a role in the decision to prosecute. McNeil appealed his conviction to the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict.

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