WILSON, N.C. (AP) — John McNeil had been home in Wilson for less than two days after his release from a Georgia prison when he set about the sad task of burying his wife.
In death, as in the last years of her life, Anita McNeil had waited for her husband of 22 years, her high school sweetheart, the father of their two sons. Her family and friends believe she tried to wait until he was free, but she died of cancer Feb. 2, 10 days before his release.
She was buried 12 days later, on Valentine's Day, with her husband at her graveside.
In their last phone conversation, he told her how much he loved her, and they discussed his plan to plead guilty to manslaughter so he could get home to her before she died.
"I told her how much she meant to me and that I needed her because I feed off her strength and energy," McNeil said in an interview last week.
McNeil, 46, had claimed self-defense in a fatal shooting at his home in Georgia in 2005 but was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He pleaded guilty last week to the lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to time served and 13 years of probation.
Advocates say Georgia's "stand your ground" law — which allows people to use deadly force if their lives are in danger — should have blocked charges against McNeil.
As her husband fought his conviction, Anita McNeil was fighting breast cancer that spread to her bones. They had last seen each other in September and had last spoken several weeks before she died. Although he knew his wife was sick, McNeil said he had no idea that would be their last conversation.
While in prison, McNeil missed the funeral of his mother, who died in July 2012. He didn't want to be absent for his wife's funeral as well.
And she supported the decision to plead guilty — do what you have to get home, his wife said, because we need you here. After she died, McNeil stuck by the plea because his wife had asked him to do so, regardless of what happened to her.
"I needed to get here for our two sons," he said. "That was one of the requests she made — get home to our sons, they need you."
Their sons, John II and La'Ron, are now grown men, 28 and 26 years old. McNeil, calm and soft-spoken through most of interview, became emotional talking about them.
"I can't even explain or express the feelings and emotions that went through my body" when he saw them again early Wednesday morning, he said. "No matter how old your sons get, you have a responsibility for them. When I saw them, I could only hug them and we cried."
McNeil's case prompted calls from the NAACP and other groups for "stand your ground" laws to apply to all citizens, regardless of race. McNeil is black, and the man he shot was white.
The Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, called McNeil's release "partial justice" and hinted that the case isn't over, despite the guilty plea. "This case is going to revolutionize how we view the criminal justice system," he said.
Growing up in Wilson, McNeil was one of the good kids, never in trouble and a member of the 1984 Wilson Fike High School basketball team that won the state championship. He graduated from Elizabeth City State University and was selling construction equipment in Georgia when he was arrested, nine months after the shooting of Brian Epp, who had built what Anita McNeil described as their dream home.
La'Ron had called his father after seeing Epp in the backyard. McNeil told police in Kennesaw, Ga., that Epp was belligerent and had threatened his son with a knife just before the shooting. A witness testified that Epp came onto McNeil's driveway, ignored a warning shot and charged at McNeil, who then fired a fatal shot. McNeil's appeals attorney has said the men were so close at that point that Epp's body touched McNeil's as he fell.
Police first said he was defending himself, his home and La'Ron. The Cobb County prosecutor eventually pursued charges, and a jury convicted McNeil. The three-story dream home with its five bedrooms went into foreclosure.
McNeil — who didn't deny shooting Epp — caught a whiff of hope in September. A judge ruled in favor of releasing McNeil and cited multiple errors at trial, including that the jury was not properly instructed on a person's right to use force to defend himself, his home or another person from violent attack.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens appealed that ruling, setting back the McNeils' hopes. Olens' office said in October that the attorney general filed the appeal at the request of Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head, who said in May that the case is a reminder of the potential pitfalls of self-defense arguments.
McNeil said the prosecutor's appeal was a huge setback for his wife.
"It kind of took something out of her," he said. "She's holding on, but we keep getting delayed, keep getting delayed. She was holding on, trying to hold on. And that's what hurts me to my heart, to know she was trying to hold on. And we couldn't make it so I could see her before she left."
Looking back, McNeil says there's nothing he could have done differently to protect himself and his son, pointing to his retreat, his begging of Epp not to come any closer and the warning shot.
At his wife's burial, McNeil said he prayed for Epp's family. "It's sad when we lose a loved one, no matter the circumstances," he said. "My heart goes out to their family. I pray for them as people pray for me and my family. You sit and say, Lord, I wish this nightmare had never happened. But it did. It's something you live with daily, and you constantly lean on God for his comfort and his guidance."
McNeil said he doesn't know what he plans to do next — perhaps open a business in the hometown that has welcomed him back or go to law school so he can help others. He's certain he'll stay in Wilson, where strangers pay for his meals when he eats out and people stop their cars on streets downtown to shake his hand.
"One of the things that Anita said before her passing was that 'I want justice served,'" McNeil said. "That's what this journey is about. It ain't about coming out, celebrating. It's about total justice."
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc.