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When John McNeil was placed in solitary confinement for 90 days in a Georgia state prison, he knew it would take mental strength.
He lost 55 pounds and looked sick.
“They were trying to break me,” McNeil recalled. It was one of the darkest moments in his life, he said.
But he was prepared thanks to the legendary late Fike High School coach Harvey Reid Jr., who instilled valuable life lessons when McNeil played basketball for him in the 1980s.
“The toughness I had to have to play for him in high school ...,” McNeil said. “If I hadn’t had that training, I would have collapsed. I would have broke down. I would have lost it.”
With Reid’s coaching, McNeil led Fike to the state 4-A championship as a sophomore.
That’s just one of the stories found in McNeil’s book, “Breathe Freedom: The John McNeil Story,” which explores how the criminal justice system robbed him of several years of his life and the fight that ensued to free the Wilson native from a Georgia prison in 2013.
A book release reception is planned for 5 p.m. Friday in the Edna Boykin Cultural Center’s lobby. McNeil’s book will be available for purchase. The reception will give attendees a chance to talk with McNeil and have copies of the book signed. Light refreshments will also be available.
‘THIS IS HOME’
McNeil was sentenced to life in prison in Georgia after he fatally shot a man who had trespassed onto his property and threatened both him and his son with a knife in his own backyard in 2005. McNeil was freed in 2013 after serving more than six years of a life sentence following a grassroots campaign led by his late wife, Anita, who died of cancer 10 days prior to his release, the NAACP and Wilson leaders.
The book also delves into his case, which he describes as an injustice, the love he had for his wife, who encouraged him to never give up on the fight to gain his freedom, and other moments that shaped him into the person he is today.
McNeil said he hopes Wilsonians attend the book release reception so he can thank them for their support throughout his journey.
“They were willing with open arms to receive me back, and that means a lot,” McNeil said. “This is home.”
McNeil said he also hopes to share some things attendees might not know or have not read that are detailed in the book. He said he made a promise to Anita that he would see his story all the way through. Part of that promise included a book.
“It’s been a journey,” McNeil said. “I’m still trying to pick up and move on with my life. We are still fighting and pressing forward.”
McNeil and his supporters contend he should have never been prosecuted for shooting Brian Epp in his yard that day in 2005. McNeil had warned Epp to back away and leave his home after he and his son were threatened that day. McNeil, who is black, fired a warning shot, but Epp, who was white, lunged forward at McNeil, who fired a second shot. Authorities found that McNeil acted in self-defense after interviewing him, his son and an eyewitness who corroborated the account. But nearly a year later, the district attorney charged McNeil with murder, all which is detailed in the book.
Police even testified on McNeil’s behalf during the trial. McNeil was a successful businessman in Georgia at the time. He had just purchased the home, which was situated in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood.
McNeil said he hopes his story can offer hope to others.
“If it could be one thing that they could get from my journey or my situation, it’s that I never gave up on God,” McNeil said. “Even though my trials and tribulations — and believe me there were some deep valleys — I had to travel. But once he brought me through those valleys and people can see by the grace of God how the transformation takes place, they can say, ‘Wow.’”
He said Reid’s advice when he was younger rang true throughout his moments of despair in prison.
“You are mentally stronger than what you perceive to be,” McNeil said. “But you have to reach down deep inside of you, the depths of your soul.”
McNeil said he’s also passed that advice to his students at the Daniels Learning Center, where he works with adjudicated youth at the alternative school.