McDaniel defense team: Prosecution may be ‘judge-shopping’

Telegraph staffMarch 20, 2012 

Attorneys for Stephen McDaniel, the suspect in Lauren Giddings’ slaying, contend that the judge assigned to McDaniel’s case was chosen properly and that the prosecution may be “judge-shopping.”

Prosecutors filed a motion Jan. 26 requesting that Bibb County Superior Court Chief Judge S. Phillip Brown review the guidelines that determine how judges come to oversee Bibb death penalty cases and to hold a hearing on the matter.

Brown assigned himself to the case in a Jan. 4 order, according to court records.

In a document filed Monday, McDaniel’s attorneys argue that prosecutors’ motion is “useless” and a “thinly veiled and utterly deficient motion to recuse” the judge.

Prosecutors’ questions were “answered adequately” in two letters written by the judge Jan. 23 and Jan. 25, according to the motion filed by attorneys Franklin J. Hogue and Floyd Buford.

“If the District Attorney’s ‘inquiry’ is to be taken at face value, and not as a thinly veiled motion to recuse or worse, surreptitious judge-shopping, then the District Attorney wonders whether Chief Judge Brown should have assigned (the Lillian Walker case) to himself, rather than (the) McDaniel (case),” according to the court filing.

Walker is accused of killing her 85-year-old Aunt Lillian Graves and her 65-year-old cousin, Agnes Stewart, in June 2009.

At the time of her retirement, Chief Judge Martha Christian was handling both the Walker and McDaniel cases -- both death-penalty cases -- and they needed to be resassigned after her retirement.

McDaniel’s defense team argues that Brown correctly assigned the McDaniel case ahead of the Walker case because the Walker case was docketed in the Georgia Supreme Court for a pre-trial appeal, making it no longer an active case.

Death penalty cases prosecuted in the Macon Judicial Circuit, which comprises Bibb, Crawford and Peach counties, are assigned using a rotation based on judge seniority and how many active capital cases each judge is handling.

When Brown, the most senior judge, made the case assignment in January, he had one case. Judge Tripp Self had two cases. Judge Edgar Ennis had indicated he planned to recuse himself from the McDaniel case because McDaniel had worked for him as a law clerk. And Judge Howard Simms had two cases.

Judge Ronnie Joe Lane, of the Pataula Judicial Circuit, is scheduled to hold a hearing Friday at the Bibb County Courthouse regarding the McDaniel case assignment.

Reached by phone late Monday afternoon. District Attorney Greg Winters said he hadn’t had a chance to review the court filing. He said he would reserve comment until he has had a chance to review the document.

McDaniel, 26, faces the death penalty if convicted of killing Giddings, a 27-year-old Mercer law classmate of McDaniel’s who had been his next-door neighbor for nearly three years.

Investigators found Giddings’ dismembered torso in a garbage can outside her apartment this past June 30.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this story. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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