John McNeil

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

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.)


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76 Responses to “John McNeil”

  1. #1 |  supercat | 

    //Warning shots aren’t just a bad idea legally, they’re unsafe gun practice. In order to fire a warning shot, you have to point the gun away from the threat, leaving you more exposed. Additionally, that gun is now necessarily pointing at something else, and unless you also take your eyes off the threat (futher exposing yourself), you have no idea what that something else is.//

    I recognize that in many circumstances, warning shots are dangerous, and one should not get a free pass for them on such basis. Nonetheless, that does not mean that there are not circumstances where firing a warning shot would be the safest course of action for all concerned. If one is on familiar terrain, on one’s own property, and knows that the target of the shot is a safe place to shoot, has an objectively reasonable belief that an attacker will not stop his attack unless a shot is fired, and believes that a warning shot might dissuade the attacker without injury, I don’t see that anyone would really benefit from having the property owner wait until the attacker had to be killed, especially in cases where the property owner would really rather not kill the attacker (e.g. the attacker is a relative who is in a very unusual state of mind because of some circumstance which would not likely be repeated).

  2. #2 |  Red | 

    Warning shots are now illegal but in the past they were the hallmark of civilized people everywhere. You let the aggressor know you’re willing to used lethal force without actually harming anyone. It gives everyone an opportunity to back down. I’d like to see them make a comeback.

  3. #3 |  EBL | 

    I still cannot figure out how you get to 2nd degree murder on the Martin-Zimmerman case (manslaughter, there may be probable cause depending on the evidence they have). But we will see.

    But this McNeil case just seems really offensive to me.

  4. #4 |  Stormy Dragon | 

    I still cannot figure out how you get to 2nd degree murder on the Martin-Zimmerman case

    If you look at Florida’s homicide statute, they seem to have a much lower bar for murder than most states. Specifically, you don’t have to prove intent, just that the defendants actions were “evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life”.

    If they state can prove that Zimmerman initiated the physical confrontatioon in an attempt to illegally detain Martin, or that Zimmerman’s actions were the result of a hatred towards blacks, they probably have the additional elements to bump it from 2nd degree murder, as Florida defines it.

  5. #5 |  Anna | 

    I agree that it’s a travesty how this paranoid 300lb white guy can chase a black child down while calling him a coon; shoot him in the back with his automatic 9mm and walk away. We only arrest him after he tries to profit from the dead child by setting up a fake “defense fund” website.

    Let’s take this bit by bit:

    paranoid – debatable.
    300lb : wrong.
    white man : wrong. he is hispanic.
    chase: unclear
    black child : legal minor, yes, but not a little boy. He played football, among other things.
    calling him a coon: also debatable.
    shoot him in the back: untrue as far as I know
    with an automatic 9mm: Don’t remember what kind of gun he used, but I don’t think the caliber of his gun has anything to do with whether he was justified in shooting Martin or not.

    fake defense fund: “Fake” in what way? Are you saying that he’s not actually paying his lawyers and they are working pro bono?

  6. #6 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    Radley: “Similarly, I once had a black studies professor tell our (mostly white) class that black people knew O.J. Simpson was guilty. But they celebrated the verdict because it showed that a wealthy black man could buy his way out of trouble the same way a wealthy white man could.”

    I find it interesting that this would be something to celebrate. So two wrongs DO make a right, according to this theory. Let’s have a round of applause for our amoral system. Pay no attention to the mutilated bodies on the ground, all of this can be swept away if you have the funds.

    This tends to support my theory that black people who feel this way, no matter how radical they think they are, have completely bought in to the might-makes-right, me against the world mentality that our system of corporate capitalism (corporatism) promotes. In my community, I frequently see young black males walking around with “Benjamins” on their t-shirts (not to mention the now cliche Scarface t-shirt) and gold teeth in their mouths. No matter how much they scowl and say “fuck the POleece,” I still think of these guys as sell outs. If these fools could set up plantations and bring back slavery they would, so long as they are able to profit. But for now, making money off of the government’s absurd drug war will do.

  7. #7 |  Juice | 

    It shows that the defendant’s life is sometimes hanging on the whims of a particular jury. Recently an acquaintance was on a jury for a case where a woman stabbed a guy to death in a bar and was acquitted on self-defense grounds. The guy had cocaine in his system, but so did she. The evidence in the Georgia case seems less controvertible than the stabbing case, but the woman was free to go while this other guy got life in prison.

  8. #8 |  Juice | 

    #15 | Joshua

    What a ridiculous situation made even more ridiculous by this statement:

    “Law enforcement officers have to follow the same rules everybody else does,” he said.

    LOL

  9. #9 |  Pasquin | 

    I’ve given up on Salon. It’s hack-o-rama over there, with the notable exception of Glenn Greenwald. Occasionally Michael Lind.

  10. #10 |  EBL | 

    This case really bothers me.

    I did a post on it.

    Given his appeals have run out, his only hope seems to be a pardon by the Governor. That is only going to happen if people speak out about it.

  11. #11 |  EBL | 

    In Search of the Tempestuous Sea sums up the situation well:

    The gun-unfriendly nature of the NAACP and whether or not John McNeil is black and Brian Epp was white are irrelevant. What has happened here is that a man has been wrongly convicted in a self-defense shooting and pressure needs to be applied to correct this injustice. Perhaps the Governor of Georgia can be persuaded to grant McNeil a pardon. In the interests of black people and white people and people who care about the natural right to self defense, this case needs more publicity.

    I am surprised Glenn Reynolds is not on this one (he might not know about it). I understand Salon is not exactly promoting gun rights, but the issue here is on these facts John McNeil should never have been convicted. Sorry, I am all for juries but they do get things wrong sometimes.

  12. #12 |  Kukulkan | 

    #27

    You claimed that Zimmerman shot Martin in the back. I asked you to back up your claim, which you did not do. Nor can you. The affidavit in support of Zimmerman’s arrest states that Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest:
    http://www.thefloridanewsjournal.com/2012/04/12/transcript-george-zimmermans-arrest-and-charge-affidavit-second-degree-murder

  13. #13 |  nigmalg | 

    Anna, Kukulkan, and any others responding to my #27 post.

    I was deliberately trying to be obnoxious, as I posted in #29. I regret not including the disclaimer along with my post. I will not make this mistake again. I was not seeking to troll, I only wished to highlight my point that discussion on this subject has gone into the twilight zone in the media.

    With the PC affidavit that the prosecutor offered and absent any new evidence, there is a likelihood Zimmerman will walk before trial.

  14. #14 |  Sam | 

    I want to understand this: when people say that Zimmerman shouldn’t be charged, is that stance grounded on what the law says or a moral conviction? Because it seems like what Florida has done is legalize murder with the Stand Your Ground law, so long as nobody else is around. After all, how can anybody refute the survivor’s testimony?

    Because there don’t seem to be any eyewitnesses to the entire event, and because Martin ended up dead (and thus, unable to testify), Zimmerman’s telling of the story will hold sway, and he’ll be able to get away killing another human being. Even though he was the armed one. Even though he was following Martin around. Even though he was the obvious threat.

  15. #15 |  buzz | 

    “Someone who chases someone down and shoots (or otherwise kills) them, and people here think they should walk? That’s murder, period. In the same situation with a police officer you’d be howling.”

    I’ve yet to see a single person here say anything like that. Most people here are basing their opinion on the actual facts of the case that have been released. From the way you framed your sentence above, you seem to be basing your opinion of the supposition of what may or may not have happened, but is certainly not supported by the facts so far released. Everyone is waiting to see what, if anything that has yet to be released that can justify the charge.

  16. #16 |  buzz | 

    “Because it seems like what Florida has done is legalize murder with the Stand Your Ground law, so long as nobody else is around. After all, how can anybody refute the survivor’s testimony?”

    Yes, It seems like that only if you totally ignore what the law says, and totally ignore the facts of the case and only reply on opinion. Much like your statement “Even though he was the obvious threat.”

  17. #17 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @65 – What? Multiple people have said it repeatedly.

    And, no, people are not waiting. People are saying “at worst manslaughter”, or calling for him to walk. Which is quite unsupportable on the evidence we do have – and that doesn’t appear to be contested – that he deliberately sough a confrontation.

  18. #18 |  EH | 

    I agree that the race angle of this case is unfortunate, since what really seems to me that Zimmerman’s motivation was more attributable to being a wannabe-cop. I have nothing to support this, but I can see the police wanting to play up the race bait on this. Zimmerman was a one-man Neighborhood Watch. The program in that neighborhood was his idea, and he was its only member.

  19. #19 |  Leonson | 

    69- I don’t believe he deliberately sought a confrontation.

    I think he was trying to keep eyes on someone he didn’t recognize in his neighborhood. If not for the racial overtones in this, it’s what any of us would want a good neighbor to do, especially in a neighborhood that had a number of burglaries recently.

  20. #20 |  Deoxy | 

    Similarly, I once had a black studies professor tell our (mostly white) class that black people knew O.J. Simpson was guilty. But they celebrated the verdict because it showed that a wealthy black man could buy his way out of trouble the same way a wealthy white man could.

    My mother said a black friend of hers told her something very very similar – and I can actually understand that from an “equality” stand point… that is, a rich BLACK person can buy their way out of it just like a rich WHITE person (Corzine, anyone?!?). Sure, it’s not justice (I don’t want rich people of ANY color to be able to buy their way out), but (from some perspectives, at least) justice isn’t really on offer, anyway, so some level of equality is at least a step up.

    I want to understand this: when people say that Zimmerman shouldn’t be charged, is that stance grounded on what the law says or a moral conviction?

    Both – *unless their is some other serious piece of evidence* that has not been released, an ethical prosecutor would not charge him, certainly not with murder 2. Manslaughter, MAYBE.

    Because it seems like what Florida has done is legalize murder with the Stand Your Ground law, so long as nobody else is around. After all, how can anybody refute the survivor’s testimony?

    Sigh. For the umteen-millionth time, SYG has nothing to do with what Zimmerman is claiming. SYG has to do with “duty to retreat”, and if you’re on your back with someone on top beating you, you CAN’T retreat, so self-defense would have been just as valid before SYG.

    Now, you certainly COULD claim whatever you want if no one is around, and SYG does indeed make that at least somewhat easier than before, that’s true… but it also makes it a lot less difficult to avoid prosecution for actually protecting yourself. As well-documented in many places (such as this very site), prosecutions of actual self-defense cases (even obvious ones) has been a serious problem in many places. Considering the complete lack of blood running in the streets in the dozens of states with SYG laws, I’d say that’s a good trade-off – fewer innocent people getting the bad end of the deal (as either victim or innocently prosecuted). There is no perfect system.

    Even though he was the armed one. Even though he was following Martin around. Even though he was the obvious threat.

    Armed, yes. Following… evidence strongly suggests he had quit doing that and was returning to his car. “Obvious threat” is simply begging the question, passing judgment in just as biased a fashion as you are accusing Zimmerman’s defenders of doing.

  21. #21 |  Deoxy | 

    Which is quite unsupportable on the evidence we do have – and that doesn’t appear to be contested – that he deliberately sough a confrontation.

    On, that evidence is HIGHLY contested – Zimmerman says he had quit following and was returning to his vehicle, and the place that it happened supports that. The 9/11 tape is audio only, so it doesn’t really say one way or the other – Zimmerman simply acknowledged the operator telling him not to follow without specifying whether he was following the advice/order (depending on how you want to interpret it).

    If Zimmerman “chased him down”, then it becomes quit a bit dicier (even if he did, if he simply followed and then Martin attacked him, it’s still legally and ethically possible that it was self-defense), but it seems most likely (by the publicly available facts at this time) that Zimmerman abandoned the pursuit, and Martin attacked him a few minutes later.

  22. #22 |  Self-defense, black on white | 

    […] Balko on the John McNeil case from Georgia, which by reversing some of the assumed racial valences might give many partisans reason to think […]

  23. #23 |  What If George Zimmerman Were Black: Liberals Think They’ve Found the Answer in Georgia | Being 1732 | 

    […] According to libertarian blogger Radley Balko, who is sympathetic to McNeil, Georgia’s “Stand Your Ground Law” was passed in […]

  24. #24 |  jimr | 

    All those that support the Second Amendment and a person’s right to defend themselves and their property need to stand up for Mr. McNeil!

    This is an outrage that needs to be addressed asap. We can not let an upstanding man like this rot in prison.

    Poor lady liberty has shed another tear.

  25. #25 |  James | 

    SYG in GA was enacted in 2006, this occurred in 2005. So he may have had a duty to retreat to his home.

  26. #26 |  Robert | 

    Come on? Use the “it doesn’t happen that way in real life” test. Who in their right mind is going to charge a man with a gun while (who is shooting at you) with just a folded pocket knife inside their pocket. Only a total fool would by McNeil’s side of the story.