Soap Box:  Failed Justice: the John McNeil case

March 7, 2013

Thereís a saying thatís common among gun advocates when it comes to self-defense, ďBetter to be judged by 12 than carried by 6Ē.  In other words, itís better to go before a jury because you defended yourself rather than let yourself be killed and carried by pallbearers.  However, while you may be alive after defending yourself, you may find yourself in a situation of wishing you were dead if youíre spending the rest of your life in prison.  Letís face it, jurors can be downright stupid and unpredictable.  Couple that with a district attorney that may be lacking integrity, that will say and do anything to win a case, it can be downright terrifying if you find yourself in court.  If you must fire your weapon to protect yourself or your family, then you have to do it.  But the following case highlights why you should actively avoid all confrontation if at all possible and watch what you say to the police.

In December of 2005, a black Kennesaw, Georgia man shot a white man in what should have been an open and shut case of self-defense.  However, about 9 months later the black man found himself in prison, serving a life sentence for murder.  Iím mentioning race because some have alleged racism played a role in this case.  Iím not going to try to prove a racial motive in his conviction, but Iím only noting race because it does make me wonder given the location of the shooting, and the conviction considering the overwhelming evidence that the black man acted in self-defense.

John McNeil hired contractor Brian Epp to build a house for him.  But they argued continuously over things and to get Epp out of their lives, McNeil decided to close early on the house, gave Epp 10 days to complete a punch list, and after the 10 days Epp was to stay off the property.   But Epp showed up about a month later, removing stuff from the house to use on his motherís house.  McNeilís teenage son was home at the time and told Epp to get off the property.  Epp refused, they got in an argument, and Epp allegedly threatened the son with a utility knife.  The son phoned his father, McNeil, and McNeil raced home as he called 911.  Upon arriving at the house McNeil saw Epps take something from his truck and put it in his right pocket, then he advanced on McNeil as the two argued.  McNeil told Epps to get off his property and he refused.  As Epp advanced McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground as he backed away.  McNeil continued to tell Epp to leave and had the gun pointed down toward the ground, as he backed up and away from Epp.  Epp ignored the request and continued toward McNeil at an increased speed.  McNeil fired another shot, hitting Epp in the head and killing him.  The police found the utility knife in Eppís right pocket and correctly ruled the shooting as self-defense.  McNeil had shot an aggressive intruder on his own property, that had allegedly threatened his son with a weapon, that advanced on him despite being told to leave.  However, over half a year later the district attorney surprisingly pursued a murder charge, got it, and McNeil was eventually convicted in what is a travesty of justice.

Incredibly, thereís more to the story that makes this case a sad commentary on the justice system.  A neighbor that was an eye witness to the incident confirmed the testimony of McNeil.  It doesnít end there.  Another couple also had problems with Epp while having their house built.  Whenever they would complain about something, they said Epp would become irate, and argue and scream at them.  They feared he would physically attack them.  Later, after they had fired him, they had to call the police on him when he wouldnít leave their property.  He was trying to get their air conditioner removed.  They said they so feared Epp that they too started carrying a gun for protection.  They claimed afterwards he would park his vehicle across the street and spy on them.

So how in the world did a jury convict McNeil of murder when it was obviously an open and close case of self-defense?  Another question is why the district attorney pursued charges against him some months later, but I have a feeling weíll never know the real reasons on that one.  But part of the things that got McNeil convicted (unjustly so) was his words to 911, his words to the police on the scene, and the utter stupidly of the jury.  One also wonders about the quality of his defense attorney.

First the 911 call.  Jurors have said in interviews that the 911 call influenced the guilty verdict.  McNeil told the operator to get the police out there because, ďIím ready to whip his ass right now.Ē  While such a statement is understandable given the problems McNeil has had with Epp, and Epp was trespassing and had just allegedly threatened his son with a utility knife, it is a statement that would show premeditation to an assault.  However, an ignorant jury, probably lead by the district attorney, incorrectly thought it was premeditation to murder.  Wanting to kick someoneís tail is not the same as wanting to kill someone.  Lesson to be learned, be careful what you say on the line with 911.  Everything is being recorded and it can and will be used against you, even if it has to be dishonestly twisted.

Secondly, McNeil told the police on the scene that he shot Epp because he came at him with a knife, or pulled a knife on him, or something to that effect.  McNeilís son testified that Epp threatened him with a bladed instrument, McNeil saw Epp put something in his pocket, and the police did find the weapon on him.  The police rightly deemed it justified self-defense.  However, the district attorney twisted this and made it seem like McNeil had lied, given the knife wasnít actually in Eppís hand as he charged at McNeil.  Yes, itís ridiculous.  A knife can be pulled in a fraction of second.  Any reasonable person would assume Epp was armed, and it turns out he was.  But because of the way the DA twisted it, the ignorant jury bought it and considered it a lie on McNeilís part, thus casting a shroud of dishonesty on him.  Lesson to be learned, be very careful what you say to police.  Even the most reasonable and seemingly innocent statement can be twisted and used against you.  They arenít your friends.  The DA isnít your friend.  Most lawyers suggest you donít say ANYTHING to the police without a lawyer.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most incredible, mind numbing reason McNeil was convicted was because of his choice of ammunition.  Jurors have said the ammunition used was also a deciding factor in their guilty verdict.  No, it wasnít armor piercing, tank busting, cop killing bullets.  It was simple hollow-point bullets.  A juror said, ďYou know anybody who carries around a gun with hollow-point bullets? They arenít just wanting to scare somebody.Ē  Most gun enthusiasts know that the hollow-point bullet is the most commonly used round for self-defense.  Thatís also what the police carry.  So yes, we do know people that carry hollow-point bullets.  The answer is almost everyone!  This blatantly ignorant jury reasoned that only murderers carry hollow-point bullets.  I donít have the transcript of the trial, but I wonder if they came to that false assumption on their own, or if they were led there by an unscrupulous DA.  Years ago I use to carry specific rounds for self-defense.  But after reading about how dishonest district attorneys would sometimes twist this into criminal intent, I switched to just vanilla style hollow-points.  Now Iím thinking about switching to just plain old ball ammunition.

This story is a wake-up call to those that carry a firearm for self-defense and the defense of their family.  It shows that even if you have to fire your weapon against an armed, threatening, and trespassing intruder that is advancing on you despite your warnings, you could find yourself facing a jury comprised of the most ignorant people of the county being led by the nose by a district attorney that cares nothing about truth and justice, but only about a conviction for their belt.  This shouldnít stop you from taking necessary action, but it means you should avoid any and all confrontation to the best of your ability.  Donít get into arguments with people.  Be passive.  Leave the area if possible.  Do everything you can to not pull your weapon and fire.  But if you do have to fire, make darn sure that it was the ONLY thing left for you to do to stop a valid and reasonable threat.  And even then, as youíve seen with this case, you could be dealt an injustice from the state.  Remember if youíre on the phone with 911, you are being recorded.  Donít talk to them when youíre angry, but instead when youíre scared and need their help.  The police are also ďrecordingĒ what you say.  While you may be in the right, and want to be fully cooperative with the police, an unscrupulous DA will twist what you say into something to be used against you.  All they need to know is that you feared for your life and you shot in self-defense, which should be the actual case.  The details can come later, with your attorney.  As this case shows, even when the police rightfully determine itís a case of self-defense, a DA and a stupid jury can nullify it.

The Final Outcome

In February of 2013, after unjustly serving 6 years in prison for murder, John McNeil was released from prison and returned home.  A judge had ruled he deserved a new trial and rather than risk the outcome of a new trial he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter (another injustice, but a smart move), was given credit for time served, and released on probation.  He won his release by the tireless efforts of his wife and the NAACP (which alleged his trial and conviction had racial undertones).  Unfortunately his wife died just days before his release, on February 2.

I have no way of knowing if race played a part in the prosecution of McNeil.  Given the overwhelming evidence that it was a self-defense shooting, it does make one wonder.  However, I do think the appearance of Brian Epp went against McNeil (though again, no proof).  When I first heard of the case, and what transpired, my initial impression of what Epp must look like was a heavy set, middle aged man, maybe like a red-neck.  I was shocked when I saw the images of Epp.  He was young, and clean cut.  He had young kids.  Iím sure the DA showed plenty of images of Epp, smiling with his children, to the jury, to play on their emotions.  Itís a tactic done in many other trials with great success.

Jeff Polston

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