Yesterday, John McNeil walked out of a Cobb County, Georgia prison after serving seven years for the murder of a White man, Brian Epp, whom he maintains he killed out of self-defense. The case prompted a national debate, with a fight partially led by the NAACP, about whether Georgia’s version of “Stand Your Ground” applied to African Americans. Unfortunately, McNeil’s biggest advocate, his wife Anita, succumbed to cancer on February 2, just days prior to her husband’s release.
Tonight Investigation Discovery premieres The Injustice Files: Hood of Suspicion, spotlighting McNeil’s case and others, at 8 pm EST. EBONY caught up with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, best known for The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, which helped re-open the iconic civil rights case, to discuss McNeil’s case and the injustice African Americans continue to experience in this country.
EBONY: What prompted tonight’s Injustice Files featuring John McNeil’s case?
Keith Beauchamp: It all stems from, of course, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin. I wanted to produce a provocative but yet honest documentary that would actually provide a platform to open up a dialogue that is needed in this country about the racial profiling that still goes on, as well as the Stand Your Ground laws, which often discriminate against African Americans. At a time, when we just ushered in our African American president for a second term, I just felt that we needed to talk about these issues of civil rights that still exist in this country and Trayvon Martin was, of course, a stepping stone to do that. We wanted to take the Trayvon Martin tragedy and split it up in two separate parts which everybody has been arguing and talking about and that’s racial profiling and, of course, the self-defense laws, and I wanted to also show how self-defense laws discriminate against African Americans.
EBONY: With McNeil, what was it that got him released?
KB: A lot has to do with his wife being seriously ill. Everyone, from his attorney to the NAACP to us, was pushing to get his release. Even when I interviewed his wife Anita, all she was saying is that she wanted her husband released. She’d been fighting this since 2005. She did the last interview with us. I think probably the first extensive interview that she’d ever done. Sitting down with her, I saw the need for her to be at ease and at rest and I think, unfortunately, it took too much time to get his release. It’s frustrating because it’s a partial victory and I have to say partial victory because John, his back was placed against the wall: his wife was ailing, his kids were in disarray; he wanted to get out and see his wife and kids and they hand him this plea bargain. Think about that. It’s still an injustice because we, people of color, are always, forced to make certain decisions that they don’t want to when they are pressed for time or when they have their backs against the wall. The same thing that he signed today that actually allowed him to go free, which was voluntary manslaughter, he was cleared of in a court of law. He was cleared of voluntary manslaughter already so how do you charge him with this, give him a plea deal and he goes on voluntary manslaughter, something that he was already acquitted of. That man needs to be exonerated. He should have walked out of there. Just like the first detectives that investigated this case and let him go the first time. He should have never done time. He should have never done seven years in prison.
EBONY: Many people feel that Black people, especially Black men, are presumed guilty.
KB: That’s a form of racial profiling again and it does happen and, statistically, you know that’s proven so the problem is, when you deal with these kind of cases, so many people know that it’s an uphill struggle trying to get justice and no attorneys want to really take it. So it takes new attorneys, who are just coming out of school and have this tenacity to take on these cases, to do it. But I know that’s also a void that needs to be filled and I am in the process of developing my own foundation, which we’re launching this year, that will provide those type of services for victims who are plagued with these sort of injustices. Time and time again, I meet families, I meet people who are dealing with these same issues, not able to provide proper legal representation for their loved ones and now their loved ones are in prison for life. It’s not cool.
EBONY: After many of these individuals are released, the individuals who administered the injustice are still in power. How do we change that?
KB: I would have to say the people have that control. Because a lot of these officials, who are in these positions, are elected officials, you need people out there voting. You need people out there being outraged when decisions are made that they don’t agree with. Don’t keep these people in office. Hold people accountable. It’s a different day and time. We need to be educated about the judicial system. We need to be educated about the whole system, the political process, everything, so I mean, until we get that under our thick skulls, we’re going to continue to go through this same exact pattern that’s been happening over and over again.