KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A damaged cellphone and DNA evidence were used to connect a man accused of raping and fatally burning a woman at a Wichita, Kansas, park to the crime, affidavits released Friday show.
A judge Friday ordered the release of the documents used to support charges against Cornell McNeal after The Associated Press, The Wichita Eagle and broadcasters KWCH, KAKE and KSN argued that they are "presumed to be open" under a new Kansas law.
McNeal, 26, is jailed on a $1.25 million bond on charges that include one count of capital murder or an alternative count of first-degree murder in the death of 36-year-old Letitia "Tish" Davis. The mother of four suffered from burns on more than half her body and cuts on her head in the Nov. 14 attack and died Nov. 22.
McNeal's attorney had sought to keep the records closed. However, the media outlets argued that the defense didn't have a good reason for the records to be sealed, as required under a law that took effect in July. The new law reversed one dating to the 1980s that closed the records to the public unless otherwise ordered by a court to be unsealed.
Lyndon W. Vix, an attorney for the five media outlets, said Judge Ben Burgess' ruling "is consistent with what the intent of the Legislature was when they passed this legislation."
The affidavits provided only few new details. Among them was that authorities connected McNeal to the attack through a damaged flip phone found at the park. McNeal told investigators that he got a lighter from a woman outside a bar in the area on the night of the attack but denied having any contact with a woman in the park
The documents said firefighters went to the park near Wichita State University after a neighbor reported a grassfire. There, the firefighters found a nude and bloody Davis. The affidavits say Davis told firefighters that someone she didn't know had raped her, beaten her and set her on fire. Authorities obtained forensic evidence from a sexual assault examination to help link Davis to the crime, the documents say.
In objecting to the release of the records, McNeal's defense said the state law provides grounds for sealing affidavits if their disclosure would "endanger the life or physical safety of any person." The defense contends the section applies because prosecutors could seek the death penalty and because McNeal could become a target of other inmates. Prosecutors didn't object to the release of the records.
Other courts have grappled with the new law. A Douglas County judge agreed in November to release a redacted version of a previously sealed probable cause affidavit after the Lawrence Journal-World went to court.