On one side of a Cobb County courtroom Tuesday there was joy and and a sense of victory. On the other there was sadness and disbelief.
John McNeil, who began the day a convicted murderer sentenced to life in prison, left a courtroom, and later the jail, free, having pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the 2005 death of his contractor, a case that drew national attention as an example of a stand-your-ground law ignored.
New Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said later Tuesday that justice was done. He felt a conviction of voluntary manslaughter fit the crime better than murder for McNeil for shooting and killing contractor Brian Epp. McNeil’s defense in his trial was built around self defense, but a judge ruled in an appeal that he should have also been able to argue that he was justified to shoot Epp to defend his son, who said he had been threatened with a knife.
Epp’s family was dumbfounded when Cobb County Superior Judge Greg Poole Tuesday gave McNeil credit for the time he has already spent incarcerated and then sentenced him to 13 years more on probation, to be served in North Carolina where McNeil’s two sons live and where his late wife will be buried later in the week.
“We never, ever thought it would happen,” Julie Epp, Brian Epp’s ex-wife, said after the hearing.
Taylor Epp, Brian’ son from his marriage to Julie, spoke sparingly once it was over. As the judge announced he had accepted McNeil’s plea of guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the slight young man’s eyes filled, and then drop-by-drop tears trickled down his cheeks.
“He’s devastated over the whole thing,” Julie Epp said of her 18-year-old son.
McNeil, now 46, was released Tuesday afternoon following an usual move to reopen the case against him even though the government’s appeal of a lower court’s decision that he deserved a new trial was pending before the Georgia Supreme Court.
“The jury convicted Mr. McNeil of felony murder,” Cobb prosecutor Reynolds said. “I think any right-thinking DA would think this case arguably would fit within the felony murder statute. I began looking at the case from my perspective. I felt legally and factually the case was voluntary manslaughter. It’s a tragic case on both sides of the aisle . It was something I felt needed to be resolved.”
North Carolina and Georgia NAACP officials, who have pushed media coverage of McNeil’s case, said they will now try to have McNeil’s name cleared and his guilty plea wiped from his record.
“John McNeil’s only crime was defending his family,” said NAACP Georgia State Conference President Edward Dubose.
Shed of the orange jail-issued jumpsuit and waist chains he wore in court five hours earlier, McNeil walked out of the Cobb County Adult Detention center just before 2 p.m. Wearing a dark suit with a white shirt without a tie, he spoke briefly with reporters, telling them the first thing he wanted to do was “breathe freedom.”
Even though he is now free, McNeil said he is “grieving” his wife who died Feb. 2 of breast cancer.
“This has been a sad time for me,” he said.
McNeil’s new sentence is 20 years — seven in prison, already served, and 13 on probation. The murder conviction required him to serve a minimum of 30 years.
University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson said the direction the McNeil case has taken is “not unheard of but it also isn’t common.”
McNeil and Brian Epp had long-held animosities for each other because of frequent disagreements and disputes over the construction of the McNeil’s $439,000 house in Cobb County. For the most part, the work was done on the house but Epp still had a list of things to do.
On Dec. 6, 2005, McNeil’s son called his father to report a strange man in the yard who he said threatened him with a box cutter. McNeil said he knew it was Epp.
As he pulled into his driveway while on his cell phone with a 911 operator, McNeil told her to send the police quickly because “I’m getting ready to beat his ass,” according to a recording of the exchange.
McNeil fired once into the ground as Epp walked over from the house next door and then he shot Epp in the face with a hollow point bullet.
McNeil said he thought Epp was armed. The contractor had a folded utility knife in his front pants pocket.
McNeil was arrested nine months later, after then-District Attorney Pat Head reviewed the case and indicted McNeil for murder.
McNeil’s trial began on Oct. 30, 2006, and he was convicted nine days later.
Several jurors told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the recorded exchange between McNeil and the 911 operator persuaded them that McNeil intended to harm Epp — not just defend himself or his family.