Strange Justice: Serving Life for Self-Defense

Posted on September 14, 2012


Imagine that a disgruntled and perhaps unstable man, who has a history of threatening and intimidating your neighbors, comes onto your property while you are out.  Your teen son calls to tell you about the trespasser, then tells you that the trespasser has pulled a knife on him.  You tell your son to go back into the house, and you call 911.  You reach home before the authorities, and take your gun out of the glove box of your car; the man is coming at you.  You tell him to back off and you fire a warning shot, but he charges, while reaching into his pocket.  You shoot.  He dies.

Detectives find a knife in the trespasser’s pocket.  They take statements from your son and from neighbors, describing the man’s hostile history and their fear of him.  One neighbor states that the man once rushed at his wife with arms upraised as if to hit her, and often spied on their activities.  The couple took the trouble to present him with a legal letter warning him not to trespass, but it didn’t help.  This neighbor was so afraid that he began carrying a gun “just in case.”  Witnesses confirm your story, that you fired a warning shot and that you were being rushed at by this hostile person.  Detectives complete their investigation with no charges filed.  Obvious self-defense.

And then, nearly a year later, you learn that the District Attorney is filing a murder charge against you.  You go to jail for life.

This is what happened to John McNeil of Cobb County, Georgia.  Many have noted that McNeil is black and the dead hostile man, Brian Epps, was white.  Then again, the neighbors and detectives in this case were white, too.  I don’t know if this is a racially motivated prosecution or not, but I do find it very odd that:

1)  McNeil was not charged by the police, but by the DA nearly a year after the fact;

2)  The DA was responding to letters and emails urging action.  At least one of those letters was from Epps’ widow, and others were anonymous;

3)  McNeil was convicted, despite the fact that the burden was on the state to disprove McNeil’s self-defense claim.  Georgia is a very strong “Castle Doctrine” state, and in fact – ironically, as The Root reports – “Kennesaw — a predominantly white, conservative suburb 26 miles northwest of Atlanta where McNeil and his family lived — has a 30-year-old mandatory law requiring heads of households to own at least one firearm.”

4) McNeil’s conviction was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, with just one dissension, which came from Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears.  You can read the opinion and the dissension here.   The opinion is full of technicalities and seems not to take any of the on-the-ground, physical events or history into account at all.  It is dry and soulless.  I gotta say – the dissension makes a lot more sense to me:

Even viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence was overwhelming in showing that a reasonable person in McNeil’s shoes would have believed that he was subject to an imminent physical attack by an aggressor possessing a knife and that it was necessary to use deadly force to protect himself from serious bodily injury or a forcible felony.  Under the facts of this case, it would be unreasonable to require  McNeil to wait until Epp succeeded in attacking him, thereby potentially disarming him, getting control of the gun, or stabbing him before he could legally employ deadly force to defend himself….  I conclude that no rational trier of fact could find, based on the evidence presented at trial, that the State disproved McNeil’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.   Accordingly, I must dissent.

Rania Khalek, writing for Salon, questions where the NRA support is for McNeil’s case:

Thus far, gun rights advocates such as the NRA and former Cobb County congressional Rep. Newt Gingrich have been silent on McNeil’s conviction, though it’s unclear whether they are aware of the case. The NRA did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Still, Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP State Conference, argues, “The NRA would be screaming about the injustice of his conviction if John had been white and shot a black assailant that came at him on his property armed with a knife.”

So how about it, NRA?  The NAACP has taken up McNeil’s cause, but you know – if a person is allowed to legally use self-defense to protect themselves, and yet can be prosecuted on the say-so of a few disgruntled and anonymous notes to the DA – that’s not a whole lot of real protection when you are the incipient victim of a hostile, threatening, armed individual.  Forget skin color and look at how the laws were used (or misused) here.  If this happened to John McNeil, it can happen to anyone who defends themselves.