A prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for Craig Wissink, the inmate charged with murdering a prison sergeant at Bertie Correctional Institution last year.
Wissink is accused of beating Sgt. Meggan Callahan with a fire extinguisher that she’d brought to douse a fire inside the eastern North Carolina prison.
Wissink set the fire in a dormitory trash can, according to a prison disciplinary report obtained by the Observer.
Anthony Jernigan, who heads the State Bureau of Investigation office that covers northeastern North Carolina, previously said that investigators found the April 26 attack to be “violent and deliberate.”
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“I think it’s safe to say he did target her,” Jernigan said. “It wasn’t random.”
In a hearing last week, District Attorney Valerie Asbell told the court that there was at least one aggravating circumstance in the case and that she was seeking the death penalty.
After hearing from lawyers for both sides, Superior Court Judge Quentin Sumner declared it a capital case and asked the state Capital Defender’s Office to provide a second attorney for Wissink. Under state law, defendants in death penalty cases are entitled to two lawyers.
Wissink, 36, is serving a life sentence for a June 2000 murder in Fayetteville. His attorney could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.
Callahan’s mother, Wendy, told the Observer last year that she did not want to see Wissink get the death penalty for her daughter’s death.
“I don’t have the right to take his life for what he did. It’s not my choice,” Wendy Callahan said at the time. “It’s God’s decision.”
Ellis Boyle, a lawyer representing the Callahan family in a lawsuit against Wissink, said Wednesday that the family doesn’t want to comment on the court’s decision.
“The family respects the criminal process and hopes that justice is served,” Boyle said. “They hope that the public respects their need for privacy and remembers Meggan as a kind person.”
Callahan, 29, was hired to work as an officer for the prison in 2012 and was later promoted to sergeant.
An Observer investigation last year found that Callahan’s unit was often understaffed and that many of the officers there were untrained rookies. Only four of Callahan’s officers were working the day she was killed, according to a Department of Labor report. That’s half the recommended number, several current and former officers said.
At Bertie and in prisons across North Carolina, severe staff shortages endanger officers and inmates, the Observer found.
At Pasquotank Correctional Institution, where four prison employees were fatally attacked during an Oct. 12 escape attempt, about 25 percent of officer positions were vacant. Prosecutors announced last month that they will also seek the death penalty against the four inmates charged in those attacks.