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Mental claim delays Fayetteville death penalty trial

The capital murder trial of Mario Andrette McNeill has been delayed for at least a week while McNeill undergoes a mental evaluation.

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The capital murder trial of Mario Andrette McNeill has been delayed for at least a week while McNeill undergoes a mental evaluation.

McNeill, 32, is charged with murder, rape and kidnapping in the death of 5-year-old Shaniya Davis.

Opening statements were set to begin Monday afternoon, but Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons told jurors not to come back until next Monday.

Defense attorneys raised a question Monday morning about McNeill's "capacity to proceed" and included an assessment of McNeill by Durham psychologist James Hilkey, who also evaluated Robert Stewart, who received a life sentence for killing eight people at a Carthage nursing home in 2009.

Ammons directed doctors from Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro and Central Regional Hospital in Butner, two state mental hospitals, to confer with Hilkey and conduct an independent evaluation of McNeill over the next few days.

The judge said he would hold a hearing Friday to determine whether the trial will proceed.

Shaniya'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.

Two weeks ago, McNeill rejected a deal offered by prosecutors to guarantee a life prison sentence if he pleaded guilty. His attorneys said he maintains his innocence.

Defense attorneys also challenged his statement to police, saying prosecutors promised his original attorney that they wouldn't seek the death penalty if McNeill helped them locate Shaniya's body. Prosecutors have denied any such agreement.

That motion was supposed to be handled last Friday, but Ammons closed the courtroom briefly to address what a court administrator described as a legal issue about attorney-client privilege.

Media organizations, including Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL News, filed a motion challenging the decision to close the courtroom, saying he never made a specific finding "of any compelling interest in closing the courtroom" to meet standards imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court for shutting out the public.

Ammons defended the move Monday, saying he did it as a last resort.

"To avoid public disclosure of sensitive information that might prevent the parties from having a fair trial, I did find that there was no less restrictive means in protecting this interest, and the scope of the closure was held to 15 minutes," he said.

He could address that issue on Friday – the media want a transcript of the closed hearing – as well as the defense request to suppress McNeill's statement to police.

Investigators say Davis sold her daughter to McNeill to pay off a drug debt.

She is charged with first-degree murder, indecent liberties with a child, felony child abuse, felony sexual servitude, rape of a child, sexual offense of a child by an adult offender, human trafficking and making a false police report.

Her trial will be held after McNeill's case is over, and prosecutors aren't seeking the death penalty against her.


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