The judge 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.
"We are very hopeful that people in a position of power now will look at this, will look at the people who have stood on John's side, and will do a form of repentance and say enough is enough. Let this man come home and be with his wife," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Among McNeil's supporters is Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose, who spoke at a prayer rally Thursday for McNeil and wrote a letter to Olens, asking him to drop the case.
"Nothing we can do now will give John the past six years back with his family," Rose wrote. "But you can make a decision that will help reunite them now."
Anita McNeil hides her balding head, the result of chemotherapy, under a baseball cap, and her eyes well up with tears when she discusses her health. Still, she doesn't like to talk about this second fight with breast cancer. Her doctor "treats me so that I can have longevity," she said, declining to talk about a specific prognosis. "If it means being treated forever, that's what we'll do."
One of the few times she smiles is when she talks about visiting her husband last month. They had three hours together, hardly enough time to make up for the 18 months that had passed since their last visit.
"We were able to hug and touch. We were very close and we were talking. We were able to smile and share each other's energy," she said.
In the years since McNeil was charged, his mother has died. The six-bedroom, three-story house where she had hoped to entertain nieces, nephews and other family went into foreclosure. Anita McNeil holds onto her faith that she and her husband will be back together before cancer claims her life — a faith that believes God can unlock jail doors.
"At some point, you just can't keep taking from people when you've done wrong," Barber said. "Let him come back. Let him contribute to society. Let him be able to embrace his wife. And let all of us learn from this and be better."
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc