‘A light from the shadows’

The slaying of Lauren Giddings has raised an almost impossible question. One the accused himself has asked, and one that police, lawyers or a trial may never quite answer.

Telegraph staffAugust 28, 2011 

A verdict, should one present itself, may never be enough.

It may well fail to answer the question that so often lingers in murder’s wake, a question that hangs over the mothers and fathers of the lost; over friends and loved ones long after the shock wears off -- if ever it does.

Sometimes the question looms and haunts those who are, or had been, close to the convicted and, yes, even the acquitted.

The rest it leaves scratching their heads.

It is a question that cannot always be answered, not even in a court of law. Sometimes the only ones who can answer the question are the accused themselves, and it is their right not to.

That is but one facet of a system of justice that Lauren Giddings embraced and studied and yearned to make her life’s work. As had, we are told, Stephen McDaniel, the man suspected of killing her -- if in fact a legal career was or still may be in his future.

Giddings was a social superstar, the kind of person folks flock to. She could wear pink in the straight-laced realm of power lawyerdom and pull it off like Reese Witherspoon’s preciously ambitious character in “Legally Blonde.”

McDaniel, an awkward, deep thinker, who took four years of Latin in high school to get a jump-start on the mental gymnastics of law school, is said to have been “a perfect gentleman” as a teen and, in his 2004 graduating class at Parkview High, was voted runner-up “Most Likely to be Famous.”

Both Giddings and McDaniel had, in the course of their educations to become attorneys, no doubt come to know that verdicts of guilty or not guilty, no matter how just they may be, do not necessarily render the truth. Or, more precisely, lend definitive answers to questions like the one that overshadows this whole incomprehensible episode.

The question is this, and the 25-year-old McDaniel -- in his now-notorious sidewalk chat with reporters in the hours after Giddings’ dismembered remains first turned up -- has raised it himself: “Why would anyone do this?”

* * *

For now, there is no choice but to look elsewhere for the answer.

To see what, or rather who, has been taken away.

One can turn to the words of the slain woman herself, to an e-mail Lauren Giddings sent to a friend a month before she died.

Giddings was in love. And it was no crush. She had flat-out fallen. She’d found her calling.

“I really started to love criminal law and being in the courtroom the past year,” she wrote.

Then there are the remarks of that very friend, Kristin S. Miller, who met freshman Lauren Giddings at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta nearly a decade ago.

“She had a deep sense of right and wrong ... for justice,” Miller said. “But she also had an endless capacity for compassion and empathy. She’d have made a hell of a prosecutor.”

Miller eulogized Giddings, dead at 27, at her funeral earlier this month. She spoke of her Maryland-born confidant’s “ocean of loving parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins,” of being enveloped by Giddings’ “warmth, her intelligence, her effortless beauty,” and of Giddings’ charms, how she could win people over with her glee.

“In a particularly heated classroom debate, Lauren had completely defeated a girl with airtight facts and logic, and instead of verbally responding, the girl crumpled a piece of paper in her fist and threw it at Lauren,” Miller said at the Aug. 6 service. “Ever good-natured, Lauren just laughed. And by the end of class she had that other girl laughing, too.”

Whenever her college softball team, the Scotties, made a great play in the field, Giddings, an infielder, would dart to first base and spring skyward in a leap she topped off with a ballerina twirl.

Miller also told of Giddings’ time studying abroad in Bulgaria, where speaking the language was “the only thing she was ever bad at.” In a restaurant there, Miller said Giddings “once ordered a cucumber toilet and a side of sweater.”

Miller, an Atlantan and an attorney herself, the daughter of an attorney to boot, then spoke of Giddings’ internship at her father’s firm, King & Spalding, where Giddings was on occasion known to work all night to meet deadlines and to somehow “make everything into a celebration.”

“Lauren loved cake,” Miller said. “During her time at King & Spalding, she decided that Wednesdays would be cake day. Lauren also loved pink. So she decided that not only would Wednesdays be cake day, it would also be ‘Pink Wednesday.’ ... And being Lauren, she got everyone excited about this little tradition. ... Everyone would wear pink and take turns bringing in the cake. Even the guys would wear pink button-downs or polos, knowing that was their only shot at getting the cake -- or hanging out with Lauren.”

Sometimes Giddings would send cake-party-related e-mails to Miller’s father, Richard A. Schneider, a King & Spalding senior partner, who would jokingly reply with task-masterly quips that more or less said, “Please do not e-mail me about cake. Please continue working.”

In a 2007 letter of recommendation for law school, he described Giddings as “a woman of deep intelligence and personal warmth” and “a quick study with an infectious sense of humor.”

“Lauren,” Schneider wrote, “connects with people -- a quality much to be treasured in a future lawyer. She is empathetic and dedicated. Her clients will be devoted to her, as she will be to them. Her law school classmates will treasure her.”

* * *

There was once a classmate Stephen McDaniel treasured.

He wrote her notes, letters. He gave her a wind-up glitter globe that played the theme to “Doctor Zhivago” on her 13th birthday. Sometimes he carried her books. They weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend or anything, but he looked out for her.

She didn’t want to be quoted or have her name printed in this story -- and, no, it has nothing to do with the charges against him. She thought a lot of him. They grew up together and were in a lot of the same classes, from first grade at Mountain Park Elementary east of Atlanta all the way through high school at Parkview.

Her view of him offers another vantage point from which to view the prime suspect in a murder case that has gripped the midstate since late June when Lauren Giddings’ torso turned up in a trash bin at the apartments where McDaniel and Giddings were neighbors.

McDaniel’s old schoolmate from Lilburn said it would be OK if her mother shared their recollections of McDaniel. Her mother, Judy Bentley, grew up in Kentucky and graduated from the state university in Lexington in 1978 with a criminal-justice degree. She moved to metro Atlanta just in time for her daughter to start grammar school.

Bentley, who recently invited a pair of Telegraph reporters to her Alpharetta home, recalled McDaniel as “very sweet. ... Just kind of a quiet, very polite, nice little boy.”

She recalled he was “a perfect gentleman.” When the deejay at her daughter’s 13th birthday party cranked up an oldie-goldie, McDaniel, one of two boys in attendance, got up and boogied with the birthday girl.

“I was moved by that because Stephen ... didn’t look like the type that would get up and dance,” said Bentley, who spent countless hours volunteering as a “room mom” at her daughter’s elementary school. She befriended McDaniel’s mother, and Bentley sometimes visited her at home when she and her family moved into McDaniel’s neighborhood in the late 1990s.

When her daughter was in high school, Bentley said, her daughter told her how students in the so-called “in crowd” would sometimes call McDaniel a “freak.”

In response, Bentley said, “Stephen would go, ‘Hisssss.’ Not like he got down on all fours and hissed or anything. He just started doing that to let them know that he thought they were funny.”

She said smart kids are rejected sometimes as if “something’s wrong” with them.

“That’s a human flaw in my opinion,” Bentley said.

McDaniel, who played violin and was into anime, didn’t conform to what the average student might consider “standard normalcy,” she said.

Even so, she never thought of him as “weird.”

“He was an individual, and a very happy individual,” she said. “He liked who he was.”

Bentley doesn’t remember him having a girlfriend, but in his senior year at Parkview, McDaniel was runner-up in the voting for “Most Likely to be Famous.” She said it was probably because his peers figured McDaniel, who often toted at school a briefcase with a fantasy-novel manuscript he wrote inside it, would someday be an acclaimed author.

Bentley said, “We always used to compare him to Stephen King.”

* * *

Bentley’s daughter and McDaniel haven’t kept in touch.

But on the night of Aug. 2, the daughter couldn’t help remembering him.

Visiting her mother at home, she dashed out of her bedroom to tell her mom what she’d just seen on Facebook.

McDaniel had been charged with murder.

“We were up practically the rest of the night. ... There was just no way this could be happening,” Bentley said. “We were devastated. We could not believe it. ... I find it even harder to believe that someone would go through law school, take a required-evidence class and murder their next-door neighbor and leave all the clues. That’s just so far-fetched.”

Because here was a young man she had known, who as a teen had, in notes to her daughter, written how she was “a wise young woman,” how after graduation from high school “I will miss seeing you each day,” and who’d sign his name, “Your eternal friend.”

In February 2004, McDaniel sent Bentley’s daughter a homemade Valentine’s Day card with a Cupid and red hearts on it. The daughter had been out of school for medical reasons.

“To my dear, brave friend,” McDaniel wrote. “It takes a true hero to undergo the most dire perils, to go through pain and sorrow.”

He wrote how he prayed for her return and to see her “smile bringing forth all the radiance of the morning sun, with all the beauty of twilight.”

On the back, beneath his e-mail address, he typed, “Feel free to send a message if ever you’re feeling lonely.”

* * *

There is a line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” next to McDaniel’s baby picture in the 2004 Parkview High yearbook.

McDaniel himself selected the phrase.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” it reads.

The quote is part of a rhyme that ends, “From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be the blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”

A few of Lauren Giddings’ friends and family members sat in a drab, ground-floor Macon courtroom Friday morning at a hearing for her accused killer.

Her light sprang forth.

Her loved ones were wearing pink, her favorite color.

* * *

Giddings’ father speaks of the frustrations of his eldest daughter’s calling.

“This law thing is so slow,” Bill Giddings said.

“Justice,” he said, “we can only hope we get a little bit of that in the end.”

In an e-mail to a reporter two week’s after Lauren Giddings’ death, her mother’s cousin extolled Lauren’s promise.

The cousin, Robin Parr, who lives in north Georgia, recalled how her lawyer husband, after Giddings’ first year of law school, had said, “That girl’s got it! Lauren is going to make a great trial attorney!”

“Lauren made a difference. She made the world better. She made us better,” Parr wrote. “We throw up our hands now and wonder, ‘Why did the best of all of us, our Lauren, have to be taken?’ ’’

And there again is the question.

* * *

There is, however, another question.

Giddings’ closest friend from her Agnes Scott years has sought comfort in its answer.

The friend has found safe harbor from the endless tears.

“They will stream like that forever,” Kristin Miller said in her Aug. 6 eulogy. “And that’s OK. ... As sad as I am, and as sad as I always will be, I refuse to let the story of Lauren Giddings end in sorrow. When I think of Lauren, I am going to hear the sound of her laughter. I am going to remember what a special person she was and what an example she was of how to be in this world.”

So, this other question.

It is no puzzle at all.

Its answer is ingrained in the minds and spirits of those whose lives, like Miller’s, were enchanted by Lauren Teresa Giddings.

Its answer? Live it up, be sweet, be smart and smile.

Said Miller, “Every time I lose my temper or get short with the world. Every time that I let hope fade out of sight. Every time that kindness is needed, not cruelty. Every time compassion is needed, not contempt. Every time I need to be better than I am, I am going to grab myself by the collar and insist that I answer one question: ‘What would Lauren do?’ ’’

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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