John McNeil free, 6 years after murder conviction

9:50 PM, Feb 12, 2013   |    comments
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Video: John McNeil released from prison

John McNeil (File Photo)

MARIETTA, Ga. -- John McNeil barely said a word as he walked out of the Cobb County prison, a free man after six years behind bars. His first request, simply to breathe.

"Breathe freedom. That's the first thing I want to do," said McNeil surrounded by reporters and many of the supporters that fought to get him released.

John McNeil was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting Brian Epp in the McNeil family's Kennesaw yard in 2005.  Cobb county police ruled McNeil's actions self defense. 

McNeil believed Epp had threatened one of his sons with a knife.  He fired a warning shot into the ground, asking Epp to leave.  When Epp refused, McNeil fired again, this time hitting him in the head.

Several months after the incident, the District Attorney decided to prosecute McNeil for murder.  The NAACP and McNeil's family believe the decision was racially motivated.

"He plead guilty to a lesser charge, but the reality is the criminal justice system in Georgia and America still remains guilty of the greater charge. That of continuing disparity and inequities in sentencing of African American men, minorities and even poor whites," said NC NAACP president, William Barber.

Epp's family says he was there to make repairs on the house, and whatever the disagreement, nobody needed to die.

"It doesn't matter what color you are. You point blank shot a man and took his life. Took his life over nothing," said Jill Bonnie, a relative that showed up in court for Tuesday's hearing.

Last fall, a Bartow County judge ruled that McNeil should be granted a new trial or released, because of problems with his attorney and the jury instructions on sentencing.

Instead, the District Attorney and McNeil worked out a plea agreement.  Voluntary manslaughter.  His sentence:  time served, plus 13 years probation.

On Tuesday, a judge accepted the deal.

"While we would have preferred John to be exonerated based on self-defense, we are thankful that he can return home to be with his two sons and start his life over," NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said in a statement.

McNeil agreed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter to bring closure to the case, hoping to get out in time to be with his wife, dying of cancer. But his release came a week too late.

"So this is just a sad time for me," said McNeil.

Sad too for Taylor Epp, who was only 11-years old when McNeil killed his father Brian.  Epp's family left the courtroom frustrated and angry.

"It's just hard to believe someone can do something so horrific and get away with seven years, free man to do whatever he wants to," said Bonnie.

McNeil will be allowed to serve his probation in North Carolina, where his family moved after the shooting.  He is expected to visit his wife's grave on Wednesday. 

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