“If Trayvon Martin had been white and George Zimmerman had been black, would we feel the same way?”
For many people, this question has been a persistently troubling one in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin and the racially charged media circus that has resulted from it. And leaving aside the fact that Zimmerman is hispanic, many liberal leaning bloggers, Salon’s Rania Khalek and MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry foremost among them, think they’ve found a test case that shows precisely this implied double standard at work.
Meet John McNeil, the man who some are calling “the black George Zimmerman”:
McNeil is currently serving a life sentence for shooting Brian Epp, a young white construction worker, in a case with admittedly eerie factual similarities to the Martin case. Or at least, similarities that are eerie if you take the Left’s bloggers’ word on it. Here’s Salon’s description:
It all began in early 2005, when McNeil and his wife, Anita, hired Brian Epp’s construction company to build a new house in Cobb County, Ga. The McNeils testified that Epp was difficult to work with, which led to heated confrontations. They eventually decided to close on the house early to rid their lives of Epp, whom they found increasingly threatening. At the closing, both parties agreed that Epp would have 10 days to complete the work, after which he would stay away from the property, but he failed to keep up his end of the bargain.
On Dec. 6, 2005, John McNeil’s 15-year-old son, La’Ron, notified his dad over the phone that a man he didn’t recognize was lurking in the backyard. When La’Ron told the man to leave, an argument broke out. McNeil was still on the phone and immediately recognized Epp’s voice. According to La’Ron’s testimony, Epp pointed a folding utility knife at La’Ron’s face and said, “[w]hy don’t you make me leave?” at which point McNeil told his son to go inside and wait while he called 911 and headed home.
According to McNeil’s testimony, when he pulled up to his house, Epp was next door grabbing something from his truck and stuffing it in his pocket. McNeil quickly grabbed his gun from the glove compartment in plain view of Epp who was coming at him “fast.” McNeil jumped out of the car and fired a warning shot at the ground insisting that Epp back off. Instead of retreating, Epp charged at McNeil while reaching for his pocket, so McNeil fired again, this time fatally striking Epp in the head. (Epp was found to have a folding knife in his pocket, although it was shut.)
Making the story even more convenient for those citing it as a parallel to the Martin case, Georgia apparently both has a “Stand Your Ground” law similar to Florida’s and subscribes to the “Castle doctrine” that allows deadly force in defense of one’s own property. So if McNeil is behind bars, Zimmerman should be too, or if Zimmerman is let go, so should McNeil be, right?
Not so fast. Unlike the Zimmerman/Martin case, which has yet to go to an official trial, the McNeil case left an ample legal paper trail to follow showing precisely why McNeil’s self-defense claim didn’t work. Readers are invited to form their own conclusions – the truth has no agenda – but for the sake of accuracy, here are a few of the facts that the Salon/MSNBC account leaves out:
1. According to libertarian blogger Radley Balko, who is sympathetic to McNeil, Georgia’s “Stand Your Ground Law” was passed in 2006, whereas McNeil’s case was tried in 2005. As such, the two cases have real legal differences in terms of how the self-defense claim was applied. Balko still thinks the self-defense claim should have worked in McNeil’s case, but points this out (emphasis added):
But even if Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law had already been effect, if McNeil wasn’t granted that defense or a traditional self-defense claim because of his race, class, or some other unjust reason, none of that is a convincing critique of the law. It’s a convincing critique of the criminal justice system.
From the facts in the opinion, I’d say McNeil not only should have been acquitted on traditional self-defense laws, he should never have been charged in the first place. (That was also the opinion of the lead investigator.) But trying to shoehorn this case into a narrative that allows for comparisons to the Martin case doesn’t do John McNeil any favors. I’m not sure it really helps the cause of those calling for Zimmerman’s head, either. For example, the Salon piece suggests that McNeil’s prosecutor may have filed the murder charge after caving to public pressure. That’s what Zimmerman’s defenders say is also happening to him.* Epp’s prior history of threatening people plays into McNeil’s favor—but if we’re comparing the two cases, then it would also seem appropriate to look into Martin’s history, which Martin’s supporters have decried as smearing the victim.
The unfortunate framing aside, this is still a story that deserves more attention, and one that the gun rights crowd should be all over—and really should have been all over from the start.
2. McNeil’s case went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, which offers a very different account of what happened from the one presented by Salon in their 6-1 decision:
Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence reveals that, in September 2005, McNeil contracted to buy an unfinished home from Epp Elevations, a small building company owned by Epp and his wife. On December 6, 2005, Epp went to McNeil’s house to complete required work. McNeil’s son, La’Ron, was home and called McNeil to report that someone was in the backyard. Believing that Epp was a trespasser, La’Ron confronted Epp and asked him to leave, and an argument ensued during which Epp pointed a knife at La’Ron. La’Ron called McNeil to report this incident to him.
In response, McNeil headed home in his car. On the way back he reported to an emergency 911 operator that a man was on his property and had pulled a knife on his son. Moments later, McNeil told the operator, “I’m at the property now ․ and there’s the builder and I may get ready to whip his ass right now. So get the cops here now.” As McNeil was pulling into his driveway, he retrieved an automatic handgun from his car’s glove compartment, removed it from its case, and loaded it with ammunition.
An eyewitness who was across the street heard McNeil and Epp arguing loudly. A few minutes later he heard a loud pop and saw smoke and McNeil pointing his hand toward the ground and stepping backward. Epp was in the yard between McNeil’s house and the one next door and walking toward McNeil. McNeil continued to back up with his hands pointed toward the ground and said “Back up, I am not playing with you.” Epp increased his speed toward McNeil and McNeil raised his gun and fired at Epp’s head. Epp’s hands were at his sides, and the eyewitness did not see him raise his hands or see any weapons in his hands.[...]
From the evidence presented, the jury was authorized to conclude that McNeil decided to confront Epp with the specific purpose of “whip[ping] his ass” before Epp even knew that McNeil was on his way to the scene; that McNeil had time to stop in his driveway, retrieve a gun from his glove compartment, take the gun out of its case, load it, exit from his car, and “argue loudly” with Epp for a few minutes before firing the first shot at him; and that McNeil lied to police when he claimed that he had shot Epp because Epp had “pulled a knife on him” during the confrontation (because other eyewitness testimony showed that Epp had no weapon in his hands at the time of the shooting, and further testimony showed that Epp’s knife was folded and in his pocket after he had been shot).
In short, under Georgia law pre Stand Your Ground, the case was cut and dried. One interesting sidebar, though – the one Justice to dissent against the 6-1 decision cited above was one Leah Ward Sears, then-Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Sears disagreed with the Court’s prevailing finding that McNeil’s act was in self-defense, and therefore wanted to overturn his conviction. Sears has since retired. Yet we may see her in the news yet – she was on the short list of President Obama’s potential nominees to hold the Supreme Court seat currently held by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
As to John McNeil’s being compared with George Zimmerman, the comparison only works in the sense that McNeil would have a somewhat stronger case if he were tried under Florida’s current Stand Your Ground law, which states:
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
(4) A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.
However, given that Zimmerman came out of his incident with head wounds, whereas the Georgia Supreme Court decision notes that the only abrasion McNeil suffered was from firing his gun, it is still possible to see a scenario where one is convicted and the other acquitted.