Commentary

Saunders: Death sentence for Mario McNeill is the only verdict imaginable

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 29, 2013 

Girl Disappears NC

This undated file photo provided Friday, Nov. 13, 2009, by the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office shows Mario Andrette McNeill.

UNCREDITED — AP

What took y’all so long?

That’s what I’d ask the eight men and four women who sentenced Mario McNeill to death Wednesday for killing 5-year-old Shaniya Davis and tossing her body into a kudzu patch along a dark road.

Sure, go ahead: read that again.

The jury found him guilty after deliberating eight hours over two days last week, then took 40 minutes to conclude that McNeill didn’t deserve to live.

In many cases, a verdict reached in a capital case in under an hour would be considered one reached at warp speed. After all, holding the power of life and death in one’s hands is not something taken lightly by anyone responsible enough to be picked for jury duty.

After the facts were presented during McNeill’s trial, though – facts that were met only by nonsensical or fantastical attempts at rebuttal – any other verdict seems unimaginable.

That’s true even as the Republican legislature rushes, like a man trying to catch the last train out of a dicey neighborhood station at midnight, to abolish the Racial Justice Act. That law was implemented because of undeniable racial bias in the selection of jurors in death penalty cases. Passage of the bill in 2009 halted executions and cast North Carolina in a progressive light, especially compared to other Southern states.

This legislature seems determined to do everything it can to disabuse anyone of the notion that we’re progressive around here and to lead the state back into post-Reconstruction darkness.

Little outrage here

Yet, even those of us who think jurors are often wrongly selected or excluded and that the death penalty is capriciously applied, too expensive and too ineffective would have a hard time mustering outrage over the McNeill verdict.

One of the nation’s most publicized murder trials – no, not that Jodi Arias media-created sideshow – involved the two men charged with killing 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. That jury deliberated – no, make that “was in the deliberation chambers” – for 67 minutes before exonerating the guilty men. They subsequently wrote a magazine article confessing.

“We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” one juror said afterward.

The jurors in McNeill’s trial beat that jury’s time, probably because, as WRAL reported, they didn’t even send out for lunch.

Some trial watchers who somehow concluded that McNeill and I are “boys” – i.e., running buddies – throughout the trial asked me questions about him.

“Why doesn’t he wear a suit and tie to court?” was one.

Don’t know, I’d say. Or “It doesn’t matter what he wears. Evidence is evidence, and if he wore an Armani pinstripe, a Brooks Brothers three-piece or a frock coat with a cleric’s collar, that wouldn’t obscure the fact that he admitted going to the motel with that little girl and was seen leaving it with her.”

Another oft-asked question: How come he didn’t cut his hair before the trial?

To some people, the dreadlocks McNeill wore throughout the trial made him look even more sinister than the crime of which he was charged and convicted. Not true: Many dreadheads are sweet, educated, mild-mannered dudes who wouldn’t harm a cricket, much less a little girl.

Besides, McNeill probably knew from the jump that the evidence would speak louder than any fashion statement he made or hairstyle he rocked.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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