Self-Defense, Manslaughter or Murder?

This is a kind of complicated story. Or rather, the story itself is simple, but the background is complicated:

John McNeil, sent to prison for life for killing his building contractor in 2005, may be freed next week because he is expected to plead to the lesser crime of manslaughter to end a legal fight now before the Georgia Supreme Court over whether he was protecting himself and his son at the time[…]

McNeil is expected plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and to be sentenced to 20 years, to serve seven of them in prison and the rest on probation. He will get credit for the time he has already spent in prison so he could be freed immediately even though the wife of the man he killed, Brian Epp, objects.

So neither the prosecutors nor McNeil are hugely confident about the outcome of the Supreme Court case: this way, McNeil gets to walk out of prison but the state doesn’t have to admit it was wrong. If I know anything about Georgia, McNeil is mostly right but the court is so conservative that they might rule against him. It can’t possibly make any difference that McNeil is black and Epp was white. No way: never in Georgia.

This AJC story is bafflingly organized, but unpacking us gives us this background. McNeil and Epp had an ongoing dispute. Epp showed up and confronted McNeil’s then-19yo son with a box cutter, threatening to cut the kid. The son called his dad:

McNeil left for home, calling 911 as he drove and telling the operator it was most likely Epp. He told the 911 operator to send someone quickly because he intended to confront Epp, according to a recording played in court.

The operator urged him to stay in his car and wait for police.

Instead McNeil got out of his car with a gun and confronted Epp as the contractor walked over from the house next door. Witnesses said Epp didn’t stop even after McNeil fired a shot into the ground. The second time he fired, McNeil shot the contractor in the face, killing him.

McNeil’s lawyers argued then and now that he was justified to shoot because Epp had already threatened his son with a knife and then charged McNeil in his own front yard even after McNeil fired a warning shot.

Some of the jurors have said they saw the shooting as premeditated because of the threat he relayed to the 911 operator.

Judge Hulane George of Baldwin County ruled that McNeil had not been provided with effective assistance by his attorney:

George cited several concerns with the defense’s handling of the case. The incident was a clear-cut application of the state’s “castle doctrine,” which allows a homeowner to use force in defending his/her home or family from a violent intruder, George said. And the jury should have been instructed about that policy.

Epp was killed at McNeil’s home in Cobb County, which is the epicenter of upper middle class conservatism in the Atlanta area. Baldwin County (where McNeil was imprisoned) centers around Milledgeville, about an hour SE of the city.

So the question is whether McNeil was defending his home, which from the information we’re given seems obvious, or did his saying he was going to confront Epp, who really probably should have just listened to that warning shot, constitute premeditation? Remember that the 911 operator has zero authority here. McNeil could have argued that he was protecting his son by confronting Epp. All of this really makes me want to hear the 911 tape.

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1 Comment

  1. The Right Answer Was “Manslaughter” | Julian Cage

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