Assuming the details here are accurate, this case is an outrage.
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.)
Apparently, Epp had threatened others as well. Here’s the Georgia Supreme Court decision.
If the Trayvon Martin case causes more journalists to go looking for these sorts of outrages, that’s a good thing. But I really wish Salon hadn’t framed the story the way it did. The author uses the Trayvon Martin case as a hook, and tries to to use McNeil’s conviction to criticize Stand Your Ground laws. There are a couple of problems with that. First, Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law was passed in 2006. McNeil shot Epp in 2005. So I’m fairly sure the law wouldn’t have applied, although as I understand it, McNeil should still have had Georgia case law on his side. The subhead is also misleading. If he is ultimately convicted of second-degree murder, Zimmerman could be sentenced to life in prison, just as McNeil was.
But even if Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law had already been effect, if McNeil wasn’t granted that defense or a traditional self-defense claim because of his race, class, or some other unjust reason, none of that is a convincing critique of the law. It’s a convincing critique of the criminal justice system.
From the facts in the opinion, I’d say McNeil not only should have been acquitted on traditional self-defense laws, he should never have been charged in the first place. (That was also the opinion of the lead investigator.) But trying to shoehorn this case into a narrative that allows for comparisons to the Martin case doesn’t do John McNeil any favors. I’m not sure it really helps the cause of those calling for Zimmerman’s head, either. For example, the Salon piece suggests that McNeil’s prosecutor may have filed the murder charge after caving to public pressure. That’s what Zimmerman’s defenders say is also happening to him.* Epp’s prior history of threatening people plays into McNeil’s favor—but if we’re comparing the two cases, then it would also seem appropriate to look into Martin’s history, which Martin’s supporters have decried as smearing the victim.
The unfortunate framing aside, this is still a story that deserves more attention, and one that the gun rights crowd should be all over—and really should have been all over from the start.
(*Just to be clear, I don’t endorse or reject this view. I’m inclined to agree with Jonathan Turley that based on the information that has been made public, a second-degree murder is excessive. But we don’t yet know what evidence the special prosecutor has seen that hasn’t yet been made public. We’ll find out soon enough.)