WILSON, NC -- John McNeil has certainly been forced to take an unusual path to freedom. 11Alive went to talk with McNeil about his time in prison, his overturned conviction and the plea deal that would eventually allow him to go home. But what we found wasn't a murder case, but a love story.
RELATED | John McNeil free, 6 years after murder conviction
Here's the history of his case: In 2005, his son called him in a panic after he says a contractor, Brian Epp, waiving a knife threatened to kill him. McNeil raced home, calling 911 to alert police to what was going on, only to be confronted by Epp himself in his driveway. Even after McNeil fired a warning shot, a witness would testify, Epp lunged at him.
"He didn't just walk over, he ran over," said McNeil, sitting in the living room of a close personal friend.
McNeil made the decision to shoot.
"I still play it in the back of my mind over and over and over again. It's a lot of what if's," said McNeil.
Cobb County police investigated the incident and ruled it, self defense. But 274 days later, McNeil says District Attorney Pat Head decided to prosecute the case anyway. A jury convicted him of murder and McNeil was locked away for life.
In 2012, a Baldwin County Superior Court judge threw out his conviction, after an attorney filed a writ of Habeas Corpus relief. That meant the county could let him go, appeal the decision, or hold a new trial. After four months of legal indecision, the county decided to negotiate.
"I could have been here on her last days. I could have held her hand. I could have looked into her eyes and said, 'thanks you for all the hard work you did,'" said McNeil.
The deal: McNeil would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. His sentence would be time served, with 13 years probation.
McNeil desperately wanted to clear his name. But he wanted to be home with his fragile and dying wife, even more. Several months after he had been sent to prison, she learned her breast cancer had come out of remission.
McNeil walked out of prison, 10 days after his wife Anita had died. Immediately upon his release, McNeil went from the prison to the gravesite, where he said goodbye to not only his wife, but also his mother who had also died while he was in prison. His first words to them both were, "I'm sorry."
"I sit here now and I think, what would it be like now had she been here with me? Where would we be? What would we be saying?" McNeil pondered.
That's why McNeil's story is just as much about love as it is tragedy. For all the time he spent in prison, his wife tirelessly spent fighting for his release. She held rallies, wrote letters, and talked to anyone she could get to listen. Eventually she would catch the ear of the NAACP.
Even Anita McNeil's last words, were a request, to make sure her friends and family never stopped fighting for John's release.
McNeil now lives in Wilson, North Carolina. It's where he grew up and met his high school sweetheart.
"She was a great woman in every, every aspect of life," he said.
McNeil is giving motivational speeches and hopes one day to get a law degree. He says whatever God has in store, he wants it.