Man sentenced to death in killing of 5-year-old Fayetteville girl wants new trial

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN/AP) — The Shaniya Davis case became a nationwide story almost a decade ago.

Tuesday, the story continued, as attorneys for the man convicted of killing the 5-year-old girl pleaded for a new trial.

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The state Supreme Court should throw out Mario McNeil’s conviction because his initial legal assistance was ineffective and ruined his claim of innocence, McNeill’s lawyers said.

McNeil’s crimes include sexual offense with a child by adult offender, first-degree kidnapping, human trafficking of a minor, sexual servitude of a minor, and indecent liberties with a child. McNeill previously pleaded guilty to felony assault for shooting three people in 2001.

A Cumberland County jury deliberated for less than an hour in 2013 before recommending that McNeill be sentenced to death for Davis’ murder.

The little girl’s body was found south of Sanford in a remote kudzu patch near a place where deer hunters gut their kills, six days after her mother reported her missing from their Fayetteville mobile home. Searchers and their dogs had passed by the area without finding the girl’s body until McNeill’s lawyers told police where to look.

Davis’ mother was sentenced to serve least 17 years in prison for second-degree murder, human trafficking of a minor, and other charges after investigators learned she traded her daughter to McNeill to pay off a $200 debt.

Appeals attorneys for McNeill say his original lawyers essentially gave jurors a confession. McNeill told his lawyers where Shaniya Davis’s body was, and the argument in this appeal is that those attorneys were supposed to make an anonymous tip to police, but instead flatly told investigators the information came from McNeill. The information was then relayed to jurors by prosecutors during McNeill’s trial.

“The fact that Mr. McNeill’s own lawyers provided this information meant that this was coming from the horse’s mouth, and so the jury likely treated it just like it would a confession,” said Andrew DeSimone.

“They got the best possible representation a murderer of a child could ever get, a plea offer in a case involving the rape and murder of a 5 year old,” said Assistant Attorney General Anne Middleton.

The deal would have spared McNeill the death penalty, but he didn’t take it and he was ultimately sentenced to death.

During his trial, McNeill offered no evidence, did not want anyone to testify on his behalf before sentencing and prevented his lawyers from offering any closing arguments to jurors.

“My goal was freedom. I lost my freedom. What does it matter after that?” McNeill said in 2013.

North Carolina is rare among southern states in that it hasn’t had an execution in more than a decade because of various legal challenges. Condemned killers get an automatic review of their case by the state Supreme Court, bypassing the lower-level appeals court. About a half-dozen are in various stages of appeal to the high court.

There are 150 killers on North Carolina’s Death Row, including McNeil. He’s been one of the most recent additions to the line waiting for their execution day. The longest has been on Death Row for 31 years. The latest was added in April 2016.

The seven-member Supreme Court will heard arguments Tuesday in Edenton.

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