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When Do Self-Defense Laws Apply?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, just in time for the holidays, some big box stores want to help customers finance those shopping sprees, but will financial products from big retailers be a hit or a miss for consumers? We'll speak with our business reporter who's looked at this. That's just ahead in our Money Coach conversation.

But, first, we want to talk about a legal battle that's raising new questions about the so-called Stand Your Ground laws. More than 20 states have laws that expand the traditional legal definition of self-defense.

The most famous case you might have heard about in connection with these laws is the one involving Trayvon Martin. He is the Florida teenager who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a self-described Neighborhood Watch man. His case has taken on racial overtones since Trayvon Martin was African-American and George Zimmerman is white and Latino.

However, the principles behind Stand Your Ground, also known as the Castle Doctrine in some states, are also in the news in another case that you might not have heard much about, where interestingly enough there are also racial overtones, but in reverse.

John McNeil is an African-American homeowner. He is currently serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a white contractor on his property in 2005. McNeil is appealing the conviction and there are civil rights leaders, including the NAACP, supporting him.

Here to tell us more about this is Rhonda Cook. She's a veteran reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

RHONDA COOK: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: The facts of this case are complex and I'm going to try to summarize them. The homeowner is John McNeil. He has a teenage son who calls John McNeil from home one afternoon, saying that there is an intruder in the backyard with a knife. Mr. McNeil started driving toward his home. He calls the police on his way. When he arrives at home, he has a confrontation with Brian Epp, who it turns out was a person he had once hired as a contractor. A confrontation ensues. Mr. McNeil says he shot Brian Epp in self-defense.

What were the factors that the prosecutors say led them to charge Mr. McNeil?

COOK: Well, these two men had a history. There was a lot of animosity and then there was the 911 call in which John McNeil said he was going to do harm to Brian Epp. So they use that as sort of a - you know, he was planning to do something. So those were the two factors that worked into their decision.

MARTIN: The way the McNeil family and their supporters in this see this is that the law should have been - and, in fact, was - on their side. Was this issue addressed at trial?

COOK: At trial, they discussed whether he was defending himself, but what has got the case back in the courts is that an appellate judge said that he also had the right to defend his property or habitat and he had the right to defend a third person, in this case, his son.

So the case has been sent back, told to retry it and include those instructions to the jury, that that is a defense. He's defending somebody else or he's defending his home and not just himself.

MARTIN: I want to mention here that we reached out to a number of interested parties in the case. We called the prosecutor's office, of course. They declined to make someone available to participate in this conversation, but we did have the opportunity to speak with Mr. McNeil's wife Anita and also the Reverend William Barber, who is the president of the NAACP of North Carolina. That's where Mrs. McNeil now lives and he's become a strong advocate for Mr. McNeil and he's part of the team challenging his conviction.

And I just want to play a short clip of what Reverend Barber had to say about the case.

WILLIAM BARBER, II: Flip the facts over. Flip it over to this being a white father who went home just to protect his son and an armed black aggressor comes onto his property. I guarantee you the DA would not have prosecuted this and there would be outrage from every segment, every ultra-conservative segment in this country about this case.

MARTIN: I have to assume that the prosecutor's office has been asked about this. I'd like to know what they say.

COOK: Well, the prosecutor in Cobb County, which is where this happened, Pat Head, said race was not a factor. He said he has never done anything to suggest racism figures into his decision-making. I can't recall him being accused of this before, so I have nothing to base that on.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the conviction of John McNeil for murder. It's a case that's renewing questions about the so-called Stand Your Ground laws. Our guest is Rhonda Cook. She's been reporting on the story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Reverend Barber also mentioned that one of the major red flags in this case for him is that no charges were brought against Mr. McNeil for several months. Any sense of why that is or what does the prosecutor's office say about that?

COOK: Well, I asked them about it and, first of all, there was no pressure to bring the charge because Mr. McNeil was not in custody. Then, the DA's office told me that, because they expected a speedy trial demand, they wanted to have all their ducks in a row. It took some time to get the final police reports, but what took even longer was to get the toxicology report from the autopsy on Brian Epp and that toxicology report came in two months before the Grand Jury returned its first indictment and they indicted him first in August and then they re-indicted him in September.

MARTIN: But we are told that the investigating officers in this case didn't even feel that charges should have been brought at all. So how - what was in the process by which charges were brought? Was it Mr. Epp's family? Were there other factors here?

COOK: There was some communication from the family, specifically Kari Epp, who is the widow of Brian Epp, but the DA says that, while they consult with the families, they don't make their decisions based on what the family wants. Now, we know that's not true because it happens all the time with death cases.

The district attorney, Pat Head, said, in this case, his decision to move ahead with a murder case was based solely on the investigation by his office.

MARTIN: And what was the deciding factor in his case?

COOK: He said it was murder. He said he didn't have to shoot him. He wasn't in danger. The knife that the boy said - the teenage boy said he had - was in Brian Epp's pocket and he said there was no immediate threat. He could have stayed in his car, as the 911 dispatcher asked him to do, and waited for the police.

MARTIN: And another complicating factor here - as you know, we referred to the so-called Castle Doctrine, which, in some jurisdictions, is referred to, you know, as the Stand Your Ground law. It's not strictly similar. Another complicating factor here is that the Castle Doctrine was enacted in Georgia in 2006, which is after the incident occurred, but it was in effect at the time of the trial. And I wonder if you think - or was there any testimony to or did any of your reporting indicate whether that played any role in the outcome here.

COOK: Well, it was codified in 2006. It's been part of common law in Georgia since before the 1900s, I believe, but the jurors that I spoke with said they discussed it and so some of them are comparing it to Trayvon Martin, even though Trayvon Martin happened long after this did.

MARTIN: And what comparison are they making?

COOK: Well, what it was to them was, again, you had a black man and a white man, although the races are reversed in who was shot and who shot the person, but they also draw the comparison because the dispatcher said, wait for the police. We'll take care of it.

MARTIN: And, finally, I just want to ask you again. You alluded to this earlier. You have had the opportunity to interview some of the jurors in this case. What was the composition of the jury? As we know that the supporters of Mr. McNeil are saying that the prosecutor, who is white, is racially motivated and does not respect the self-defense rights of an African-American in the same way that he would if a person were white. What about the jurors? Was the jury racially mixed?

COOK: Cobb County is a majority white county. The jury in this case was two African-American women and 10 whites. The two African-American women and one other white woman were the ones who held against the more serious charge of malice murder, which some call first-degree murder. One of the jurors I spoke with was one of those black women and she felt that, if there had been more blacks on the jury, it might have gone otherwise. But she felt there was a racial element to it. The other jurors that I spoke with who were white did not, so it's a perspective thing, I guess, here, but that is a majority white community there.

MARTIN: So the defense is seeking a new trial and they've been granted the right for a new trial and we're not sure...

COOK: Yes.

MARTIN: ...yet what the prosecutor has - opposes this, but you're not sure exactly what stance the prosecutor's office will take in regard to which charges will be brought in the new trial. Is that correct?

COOK: Correct. They could pursue it just as it is now, a murder charge with the other charges to it, or they could do something different or they could work out a plea.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you very much. Rhonda Cook is a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She joined us from member station Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Rhonda Cook, thank you so much for speaking with us.

COOK: Happy to be there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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