The Right Answer Was “Manslaughter”

John McNeil pleaded to time served, but didn’t get out of jail until a week after his wife had died of cancer:

Last fall, a Bartow County judge ruled that McNeil should be granted a new trial or released, because of problems with his attorney and the jury instructions on sentencing.

Instead, the District Attorney and McNeil worked out a plea agreement.  Voluntary manslaughter.  His sentence:  time served, plus 13 years probation.

I gave the details of the case last week. The only new piece of information here is that the cops called it self-defense from the start:

John McNeil was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting Brian Epp in the McNeil family’s Kennesaw yard in 2005.  Cobb county police ruled McNeil’s actions self defense.

McNeil believed Epp had threatened one of his sons with a knife.  He fired a warning shot into the ground, asking Epp to leave.  When Epp refused, McNeil fired again, this time hitting him in the head.

Several months after the incident, the District Attorney decided to prosecute McNeil for murder.  The NAACP and McNeil’s family believe the decision was racially motivated.

In Cobb County? You have to be kidding. Nothing would ever, ever be racially motivated in Cobb.

The key and missing detail is why the DA filed charges when the cops had already deemed it self-defense. DAs are extremely risk-averse, to a fault: they only try cases they either have to, like Andrea Sneiderman, or that they’re 100% sure they’re going to win. There are complex reasons for this aversion to risk, but they boil down to a) money, because trials are very expensive, especially if the defense has a halfway decent lawyer, which McNeil evidently did not the first time, and b) the unwillingness of a DA’s office, which after all is run by an elected official, to be perceived as either weak or incompetent. They want a 100% success rate at trials, which is why you see the plea bargain system being abused so consistently, as it was here.

If this were to become a story, and I’m already thinking it will, then the real drama takes place within the DA’s office. What were they thinking? Was it something as simple as “Heck, he’s a black guy; a Cobb County jury will convict him just for that.” Which is reprehensible but not that farfetched. Or, and better from the perspective of fiction, what made them roll the dice? To whom was the victim’s family connected and how did they use that person to pressure the DA? There’s all kinds of possibilities here.

But I still want to hear the 911 tape.

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