Fayetteville girl's killer wants conviction, death sentence overturned
Posted May 9
Edenton, N.C. — After almost four years on death row, the man convicted of killing a 5-year-old Fayetteville girl got the chance Tuesday to argue for a new trial in the case.
Lawyers for Mario Andrette McNeill, 36, argued to the state Supreme Court that his conviction and sentence should be thrown out because his original attorneys violated attorney-client privilege and provided ineffective counsel by telling authorities where they could find the body of Shaniya Davis and that the information came directly from McNeill.
The girl's body was found in a kudzu patch off N.C. Highway 87 near the Lee-Harnett county line on Nov. 16, 2009, six days after her mother, Antoinette Nicole Davis, reported her missing from their mobile home on Sleepy Hollow Drive in Fayetteville. An autopsy determined that she had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated.
Investigators took McNeill into custody after finding security video from a Sanford hotel that showed him with Shaniya, but he repeatedly told them that he didn't kill the girl, saying that her family had asked him to hand her off to somebody else at the hotel.
His attorneys later provided the location of Shaniya's body, and prosecutors used that information "to devastating effect" during the trial, according to appellate lawyer Andrew DeSimone, who noted 13 references in the trial where prosecutors told jurors that Shaniya's body was found because McNeill's lawyers told them where to look.
But McNeill told his lawyers not to tell authorities the information didn't come from him, DeSimone said, and they broke that confidence.
"His identity was privileged. He told his lawyer he wanted it kept confidential," DeSimone told the Supreme Court justices, who were meeting in Edenton to honor the 250th anniversary of the Chowan County Courthouse. "The fact that Mr. McNeill's own lawyers provided this information meant it was coming from the horse's mouth, and so the jury likely treated it just like it would a confession."
Assistant Attorney General Anne Middleton countered that McNeill gave the location of Shaniya's body with the intent that they convey the information to investigators, and he never told them how to proceed.
"It wasn't going to help him not to reveal it [the location] at an early stage," Middleton said, noting that authorities and the public were searching the area daily in the hopes that they could find Shaniya alive.
Associate Justice Paul Newby asked whether McNeill's lawyers had the ethical duty to disclose the information for a possible rescue of the girl, but DeSimone noted the rules governing attorneys don't require such disclosures. Also, he said, the tip they provided to investigators was the location of a body, which implied that she was already dead.
The original defense attorneys also could have tried to negotiate with investigators for reduced charges or a more lenient sentence for McNeill in exchange for the information, he said, but they simply gave away the only leverage he had in the case.
"Mr. McNeill would have been better off without any lawyers," DeSimone said. "He would've been in the same position at trial if he had just talked to (investigators) directly. He didn't need a lawyer for that. He needed a lawyer to protect him and to advocate for him, and he did not get that."
Middleton dismissed the contention that McNeill's lawyers did a lousy job, noting that prosecutors offered a plea deal at the start of the trial that would have ensured a life sentence. McNeill rejected the offer and went to trial.
"They achieved the best possible outcome in a capital case: a plea offer to a life sentence," she said. "To go to trial, although his right, was pure folly. ... Mr. McNeill's conviction and Mr. McNeill's death sentence was the responsibility of one person: Mr. McNeill."
A Cumberland County jury convicted McNeill in May 2013 of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, sexual offense of a child, indecent liberties with a child, human trafficking and sexual servitude and handed down the first death sentence in the county in six years.
DeSimone said he wasn't arguing that there wasn't enough evidence to convict McNeill without the information the original attorneys provided to investigators. But their actions violated McNeill's constitutional right to adequate representation, which warrants a new trial. It also poses a threat to the justice system, he said.
"If clients cannot trust their lawyers to abide by their wishes, clients are not going to continue to confide everything," he said. "Without all of the information, lawyers cannot do their job effectively."
Authorities said Davis handed her daughter over to McNeill to settle a $200 debt. She is now serving a sentence of 17-21 years in prison after pleading guilty in October 2013 to second-degree murder, human trafficking, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree sex offense, felony child abuse with prostitution, child abuse involving a sex act, sexual servitude, indecent liberties with a child and conspiracy to commit sex offense of a child.