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State argues evidence connects McNeill to murder

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Mario McNeill Mario McNeill

The first witnesses in the trial of Mario McNeill testified Monday, after weeks of jury selection and a weeklong delay to evaluate McNeill's mental capacity to stand trial.

McNeill is charged with raping and killing 5-year-old Shaniya Davis in November 2009.

Monday's court proceedings began with a motions hearing before opening statements and testimony. During the hearing, Superior Court Judge James Ammons Jr. said he would allow testimony that McNeill's original defense attorneys shared information that led police to Shaniya's body. Ammons said the prosecution could tell the jury about that information, but only if it was clear the information came specifically from the defense attorneys – not McNeill directly.

That ruling allowed District Attorney Billy West to proceed with his planned opening statement.

"How could this happen to this innocent little angel?" West asked the jury. "The answer to that question sits on the opposite side of the courtroom from you."

West said he will use several different pieces of evidence to prove his case to the jury, including a virtual trail of breadcrumbs left by cell phone signals and video. West explained a lengthy timeline of the early morning when Shaniya Davis went missing. West said McNeill went to the Sleepy Hollow mobile home park at 2:48 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2009 to meet a woman he had been texting on his phone. West said when McNeill got to the mobile home park the woman had fallen asleep and did not meet McNeill.

West said McNeill then stopped at the mobile home of Brenda Davis. Brenda had a previous relationship with McNeill, and she was allowing her sister Antoinette Davis to live there with her children Carlisio, 7, and Shaniya, 5.

West said McNeill left the Davis's mobile home with Shaniya at 5:27 a.m. and arrived at the Comfort Suites in Sanford at 6:03 a.m. West told the Jury McNeill was in a room with Shaniya from approximately 6:30 a.m until 7:30 a.m.

In the meantime, back at the mobile home, Antoinette called 911 to report Shaniya missing at 6:52 a.m, according to West.

West continued with the timeline, which was based on data from cell phone signals and video at the hotel. He said McNeill left the hotel with Shaniya at approximately 7:45, and 40 minutes later he was only 20 minutes down the road in the Cameron area near where Shaniya's body was found.

"The defendant's phone pings about 20 minutes south of the hotel  heading back towards Fayetteville, even though he had left 40 minutes earlier, and it pings just south of where Shaniya Davis's body was found," West told the Jury.

Because McNeill left behind hair and was caught on surveillance video, he already admits to taking Shaniya Davis from her home to the hotel in Sanford. He also admits to leaving with her.

West said there is also evidence showing the dirt on McNeill's gas pedal matches the dirt where Shaniya's body was found.

McNeill's attorney urged the jurors to keep open minds. He encouraged them to always think if there is another side to the case the prosecution is presenting.

"There's a whole other story about what happened here," Terry Alford said to the jury. "Mario transported Shaniya from Fayetteville to Sanford. That's all he did."

Alford said McNeill's story is that Shaniya's mother Antoinette Davis asked McNeill to take the girl to Sanford, so someone could take her school. Alford says McNeill believed he was doing a favor, that they got the hotel room to wait for Shaniya's ride, and that the last time he saw Shaniya was when he took her around the corner from the hotel to meet her ride.

"Mario was caught in the middle of this thing," Alford said. He continued by quoting his client. "‘I'm caught in the middle of something I didn't know about before or after, and here I am sitting charged with all of it.' What he asks you to do is help us sort all this out," Alford said to the jury.

After opening statements, the state called Brenda Davis to the stand. She said she was asleep when McNeill visited her home. Much of her testimony reinforced facts the McNeill eventually admitted, such as taking Shaniya from her home.

The state also called Brenda Davis's boyfriend, who was also in the mobile home when Shaniya went missing. Monday wrapped up with testimony from a Fayetteville Police officer who responded when Antoinette Davis reported Shaniya missing.

Brandon Herring

Brandon is a North Carolina native and UNC alum who lives in Fayetteville, and covers Cumberland County and the Sandhills. Returning to North Carolina to work as a journalist is a dream come true for Brandon. More>>

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