The murder trial of George Cecil McNeal began Tuesday at the Bryan County Courthouse.
McNeal, 30, of Ellabell is charged with the Sept. 25, 2005 gunshot slaying of Ellabell resident Michael Taranovich, 47, and aggravated assault for allegedly shooting his then 25-year-old son Joseph Taranovich. McNeal is also charged with robbing the Taranoviches at gunpoint.
Michael Taranovich died at the scene while Joseph was airlifted to Memorial Hospital. He spent time in critical condition but survived.
In their opening statements before Superior Court Judge Robert Russell, attorneys for the prosecution and defense gave two different accounts of what led to the murder.
Atlantic Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Ron Poirier, who is teamed with Assistant Prosecutor Cris Schneider, put the blame squarely on McNeal.
Poirier said the Taranoviches, who ran a watermelon stand in Savannah, left work on Sept. 25 and stopped by Ellabell resident Leroy Phillips’ trailer to buy marijuana. He said Phillips did not have any, but McNeal said he could supply them with some if they drove him to another location. He also said McNeal saw Michael Taranovich flash a "wad of cash," from the day’s watermelon stand profits.
Poirier said the three got in Taranovich’s truck and McNeal pulled out a gun while they were driving, demanding money. He said that started a "horrific struggle" between McNeal and Joe Taranovich and shots were fired.
The vehicle stopped across Hwy. 204 from the Ellabell United Methodist Church, Poirer said, and McNeal continued to fire shots at both men then took the cash and fled.
"The transgressions of Michael and Joseph Taranovich pale in comparison to the evil of defendant McNeal," Poirer said. "The evidence will show that McNeal murdered Michael Taranovich without a speck of mercy."
But defense attorney Lorenzo Merritt said McNeal’s actions were in self defense and his client should be freed.
"This case is not about a murder or aggravated assault or robbery that Cecil (McNeal) has committed because he hasn’t done these things," Merritt said in his opening statements. "This case is about the lies, lies and more lies to cover up the misdeeds of the Taranoviches. As we get into the evidence, you will see that nothing ties Cecil to these charges except the lies of Joe Taranovich."
Merritt began by saying the Taranoviches left with McNeal to buy marijuana.
But Merritt said the Taranoviches tried to rob McNeal of his own personal stash of marijuana.
Merritt said one of the Taranoviches pulled out McNeal’s gun while reaching into his pocket and searching for marijuana. Merritt said Michael Taranovich put the gun to McNeal’s head, but McNeal tried to wrestle it from him and the gun went off repeatedly, inadvertently wounding Taranovich.
Merritt said the remainder of the shots fired by McNeal were all in self defense.
The first witnesses were three of the first people who arrived at the scene on Sept. 25.
Rev. Donald Combs, then-Pastor of the Methodist Church, said his daughter Melanie first saw the Taranoviches lying on the ground at the scene, prompting the 911 call.
Bryan County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. John Futch and Evans County EMS paramedic John North both testified they saw Michael Taranovich’s right front pocket turned out as he lay on the ground. North pronounced him dead.
Futch said Joe Taranovich told him he and his father were shot by a black man with dreadlocks, though both the defense and prosecution said McNeal did not wear his hair in that style.
More than 20 witnesses are expected to be called during the trial, which is expected to conclude Thursday.