Accused killer Michael Whisnant shouldn't be executed, lawyers say

Jun. 24, 2014 @ 08:47 AM

Prosecutors should not be allowed to pursue the death penalty for a Lenoir man accused of beating his girlfriend to death because he is intellectually disabled, the man's lawyers argued Monday in Caldwell Superior Court.

Michael Joseph Whisnant, 36, scored 59 and 49 on two separate IQ tests, two psychologists testified, and defense attorney Victoria Jayne said that Whisnant never learned to read or do math past the second grade, and always performed at a very low level of academic achievement. Whisnant failed the first grade twice and the second grade twice, and he dropped out of school at the end of the fifth grade, she said.

Whisnant's mother, Pattie Triplett, testified that as a child Whisnant never read a book or wrote a paper. She said she paid his bills and cashed his Social Security disability checks to buy clothes and food.

Whisnant is accused of killing his girlfriend, Tammy Benge Cassels, 38, on April 5, 2013. Lenoir police found her body wrapped in a comforter in the home he shared with Triplett on Cherry Street. A medical examiner found evidence of a savage beating, with injuries to the head, neck, chest, abdomen, back, shoulder, arms and legs. In all, the examiner found nearly 50 fresh cuts, scrapes and bruises all over Cassel's body, including numerous skull fractures and excess fluid and bleeding in her brain.

Under North Carolina law, prosecutors cannot pursue the death penalty if Whisnant's attorneys show that Whisnant shows deficits in at least two areas of cognitive function and possesses an IQ of 70 or less. However, last month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using a firm IQ number as a demarcation line for who may be executed is unconstitutional, a decision that has been interpreted as making it harder for states to execute people who may be mentally disabled. North Carolina is among the nine states with rules setting 70 as the minimum IQ for someone to be eligible for the death penalty.

Dr. John Warren III, a forensic psychologist hired by his attorneys, testifed that Whisnant has clear, significant impairment for academic and employment skills, and very likely would have also scored low in other areas.

"It was easy to see that he (Whisnant) was intellectually disabled," Warren testififed. "His IQ was so low 99.7 percent of those his age and gender score better."

Neither Warren nor Dr. Mark Hazelrigg, a forensic psychologist at Central Regional Hospital in Raleigh who examined Whisnant in April, said they saw any evidence that Whisnant was intentionally doing poorly on the IQ tests.

Wendy Annas, who had two children with Whisnant in the late 1990s, said she tried to get Whisnant to learn to read with her children but was not successful. She said she also paid his bills and shopped for him.

Judge Thomas Edwards is expected to announce his ruling Thursday.