COBB COUNTY, Ga. - A man sentenced to life for the murder of a Cobb County contractor is now a free man. Channel 2's Ross Cavitt was there as John McNeil walked out of prison Tuesday.
John McNeil has spent seven years in prison. Cavitt said McNeil showed no joy in the courtroom Tuesday morning and said very little.
During the hearing, McNeil pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. McNeil was sentenced to seven years in prison and 13 years' probation on the manslaughter charge, but he was credited with seven years' time served and was released immediately.
The plea meant McNeil would soon be getting out of prison. He was serving life for the murder of Brian Epp more than seven years ago, a crime he and his supporters claimed was self-defense, a "stand your ground" case.
The plea deal was not received well by Epp's family and friends. The family in the courtroom included Epp's 18-year-old son.
Tearful, he could barely speak.
"I don't know, sad," is all he could say to Cavitt.
"That was no justice. Seven years for killing somebody. I didn't go to Vietnam to come back to see this stuff going on in this country I see today, that was no justice. Seven years," Julie Epp, the victim's ex-wife said. "I'm very upset, it's devastating."
Hours later, McNeil emerged from a Cobb jail building flanked by many who'd fought for his freedom. He briefly explained why this was not a happy day. His wife Anita had died just days ago after fighting cancer.
"(I am) grieving for my wife's death, and my mom's death so, just a sad time for me right now," McNeil said.
McNeil and Epp had a long-running feud that intensified as Epp was wrapping up construction of the house for the McNeils. The McNeils moved in and planned to spend their first night in their new home on Dec. 5, even though Epp had a few items still on his to-do list.
McNeil never denied he shot Epp in the driveway of his new home. He said he was rushing home because his 19-year-old son had called him to report a strange man in their back yard had threatened to cut him with a box cutter.
McNeil was on the telephone with the 911 when he pulled into his neighborhood. He told the 911 operator to send someone quickly because he intended to confront Epp, according to a recording played in court.
A jury convicted him in 2006 over McNeil's arguments that he shot Epp in self-defense.
McNeil's wife and the national and two state chapters of the NAACP waged a public relations campaign to get him released from prison after a Baldwin County judge, hearing McNeal's appeal, ruled he was entitled to a new trial because his original attorney did not push to have jurors told they could acquit him if he shot in defense of his home or his son inside; the so-called stand-your-ground law could be extended to defense of someone else as well as himself.
"To watch this man walk free, (I have) mixed emotions now," said Georgia NAACP President Edward DuBose.