Lawyers say Whisnant can't go to trial

Issue revolves around mental capacity
Jun. 27, 2014 @ 08:11 AM

A man accused of bludgeoning to death his girlfriend can't face the death penalty, a judge ruled Thursday, and his lawyers now say he doesn't have the mental capacity to stand trial.

Michael Joseph Whisnant, 36, is "clearly mentally retarded," Superior Court Judge Thomas Edwards ruled. That means that prosecutors are barred from seeking the death penalty because the Supreme Court has ruled that states may not execute the mentally retarded.

But Whisnant's attorneys, Victoria Jayne and Ted Cummings, filed a motion Thursday to have Whisnant re-examined at Central Regional Hospital in Butner to see whether he should even stand trial.

"This relates to my client's understanding of his Miranda rights," Cummings said after the hearing. "We have concerns, after talking to doctors and looking at their reports, that he may not be able to even stand trial."

Whisnant, 36, is accused of killing Tammy Benge Cassels, 38, in the home he shared with his mother, Pattie Triplett, on the night of April 5, 2013. Lenoir police found her body wrapped in a comforter in a back bedroom. She had been savagely beaten, a medical examiner determined.

Dr. Mark Hazelrigg, a forensic psychologist at Central Regional Hospital in Butner, found Whisnant had an IQ of 49, and Dr. John Warren III, a forensic psychologist hired by Whisnant's attorneys, said Whisnant's IQ was 59. Both are far below the benchmark of 70 that North Carolina had, but even that benchmark has been called into question by a ruling last month by the U.S. Supreme Court that was interpreted as making it harder for states to execute people who may be mentally disabled.

A date has not been set for a hearing on this new motion.