Giddings family agrees to drop death penalty

Telegraph staffFebruary 21, 2013 

  • Statement from Bibb DA on Giddings case

    Statement released Thursday by Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke regarding the plans to drop the death penalty option against Stephen McDaniel in the Lauren Giddings murder case:
    Today I formally withdrew the notice of intent to seek the death penalty in the case of State of Georgia v. Stephen McDaniel.
    Recently I met with the family of Lauren Giddings, and discussed the case with them at length. At the close of the meeting, Lauren’s mother and father asked me to withdraw the death notice. Although they believe that Mr. McDaniel deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law, they recognize that withdrawing the death notice will allow the case to proceed in a more timely fashion, and will result in the State achieving justice for Lauren at a sooner date. In the interests of avoiding further delays, my office will not seek the death penalty for Mr. McDaniel.
    While the family of a murder victim does not decide what action our office will take, I do consider their feelings in deciding how to proceed. After careful consideration of their request, I formally withdrew the death notice today.
    We look forward to the day we bring this case to trial and achieve justice for Lauren’s family and the community.
  • Pending death penalty cases in the Macon Judicial Circuit

    Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney David Cooke will not seek the death penalty against Stephen McDaniel in the Lauren Giddings killing. Below are the details in the remaining pending death penalty cases in the district:

    The killing of Kimberly McKenzie
    Alexandria Renee Scott and Justin Terrell Grable are accused of using a weapon to force their way into 38-year-old Kimberly McKenzie’s car Jan. 26, 2011, near the intersection of Camellia Circle and Ignico Drive in Warner Robins.
    Authorities say that once in the car, Grable drove McKenzie and Scott on Ga. 247 through Houston County and into Bibb County. They turned onto Feagin Road and went to a nearby field, where McKenzie was shot, authorities have said.
    Scott and Grable also are accused of taking cash from McKenzie at gunpoint.
    McKenzie died of a single gunshot to her upper right leg. Her car was found abandoned at the intersection of Key Street and Eisenhower Parkway.

    The killings of Lillian Graves and Agnes Stewart
    Lillian Walker is accused in the stabbing deaths of her 85-year-old aunt, Lillian Graves, and her 65-year-old cousin, Agnes Stewart, both of Fort Valley, in June 2009.
    In the attack on the women in their home on Fort Valley’s Daniel Drive, Walker allegedly rifled through their purses to steal cash, checks, credit cards and prescription drugs. Walker also was accused of stealing Graves’ Jeep Cherokee.
    Graves, a retired nurse, had recently turned 85. Stewart, a retired Peach County High School teacher, was a deacon at St. Peter AME Church in Fort Valley and a former president of Fort Valley’s Habitat For Humanity chapter.

Stephen McDaniel’s mother says ‘it’s wonderful’ her son won’t face death if convicted

For weeks, Lauren Giddings’ kin have discussed what fate her alleged killer should face. Some believe in the death penalty. Others think life in prison is a fate worse than death.

Thursday, Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke announced he was removing capital punishment from the case against Stephen McDaniel, almost 14 months after the former district attorney announced he was seeking the death penalty against the man charged in Giddings’ death.

Billy Giddings, Lauren’s father, said immediate family mulled her accused killer’s fate over during their daily phone conversations and around the dinner table.

He said his wife’s religion “won’t allow her” to see her daughter’s killer put to death. Karen Giddings is Catholic, as was Lauren.

“We’re all in agreement, we just don’t want to drag it out any longer,” he said by phone Thursday.

Cooke now expects the case to go to trial within the next year and a half as opposed to what could be several years.

Billy Giddings said his family’s decision was a tough one.

“It was a decision where we had to go wholeheartedly one way or the other,” he said. “It’s certainly not that we don’t think that he’s not guilty or doesn’t deserve it, the worst of the worst.”

Kaitlyn Wheeler, Lauren’s sister, said she believes in the death penalty.

“I think the death penalty was made for cases like this. It doesn’t get worse than this,” she said. “It doesn’t always mean it’s what’s best for the case. It doesn’t always mean it’s right.”

Lauren Giddings’ dismembered torso was discovered wrapped in plastic bags in a curbside garbage bin outside her Georgia Avenue apartment in June 2011.

The rest of her remains have never been found. McDaniel allegedly used a hacksaw to dismember Giddings. Packaging for the saw was discovered in McDaniel’s apartment.

Cooke discusses case with family

Cooke said he met with the slain Mercer University law graduate’s parents several weeks ago and determined they hadn’t been “fully briefed about the case.”

During the meeting, prosecutors and the Giddings had an open conversation about the case.

Wheeler said her family took note of Cooke’s opinions about the case while making their decision.

“We just always try to work for what’s best for the case,” she said.

Cooke, who took office in January, said he also talked with experts.

“When the family agrees and the experts agree and my personal judgment agrees, it’s best to move forward taking the case to trial while all of the evidence is fresh,” he said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Due to a FBI lab backlog, several items of trace evidence, including fibers, hair and the bathtub removed from Giddings’ apartment, won’t be tested until a trial date is set.

Cooke said the feelings of Karen Giddings, Lauren’s mother, weighed heavily in his decision.

“The woman who gives birth to the victim has the most sway with me,” he said.

Reached by phone Thursday morning, Stephen McDaniel’s mother hadn’t heard that prosecutors were no longer seeking lethal injection as a punishment.

“It’s wonderful,” she said upon hearing the news. “At this point, I’m not going to comment any more than just to say it’s wonderful.”

Floyd Buford, one of two lawyers representing McDaniel, said he planned to call the Bibb County jail and visit to share the news with his client. McDaniel, 27, has been held at the jail since his July 1, 2011, arrest on a burglary charge. Murder and sexual exploitation of children charges later were filed against him.

Buford said he’s never thought the case against McDaniel should be one seeking capital punishment.

“When you look at the case and the facts that are going to come out ... those don’t add up to a case that should get the death penalty,” he said.

Franklin J. Hogue, another of McDaniel’s lawyers, said he and Buford can now cut the number of motions filed in the case in half since many pertain specifically to the death penalty.

Buford said he and Hogue may ask a judge to reconsider McDaniel’s bond in light of Cooke’s decision.

The judge may have taken the fact that McDaniel was facing the death penalty into consideration when setting his bond at $850,000 last April, Buford said.

‘Nothing’s enough to bring Lauren back’

For Kristin Miller, one of Giddings’ closest college friends, it was hard to hear Thursday that it’s now out of the realm of possibility that McDaniel, if convicted, might one day stand before a judge and be told he’s going to die.

It’s not that she’s vengeful.

“Nothing’s enough to bring Lauren back,” she said.

Miller, an Atlanta lawyer, said in her mind it seems as though McDaniel set up a circumstantial case that would be hard to solve.

Now that the death penalty is off the table, it’s like he succeeded at something, she said.

“He planned it that way. And to sort of reward him for evil is just ... perverse and sad,” Miller said. “Premeditation, it’s planning and plotting, is exactly what the death penalty is for. ... If anything ever cried out for the death penalty, this does.”

Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a Mercer University law professor, said Giddings expressed reservations about capital punishment during class discussions.

“She expressed and shared a lot of concern about the inequities in how the capital punishment is applied, about the painfulness of the process for everyone involved,” Gerwig-Moore said. “I think Lauren was as concerned about that as any student I’ve come across.”

Death penalty in Bibb County

Cooke’s decision comes a month and a half after he allowed a murder suspect in a 2005 killing to avoid capital punishment by pleading guilty. The suspect, Jomekia Pope, killed his ex-fiancee by dousing her with gasoline and setting her on fire.

Last year, Cooke’s predecessor, Greg Winters, opted to drop death penalty prosecutions against four men, two of them accused of gunning down a Bibb County sheriff’s deputy in 2006.

When asked what it means for him to remove the ultimate punishment from two cases so early in his term, Cooke replied, “I’m going to examine every death penalty case on its own merit.”

The last time a Macon murderer was sentenced to die was in 1987, but killer Keith Patillo’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison because he was deemed mentally disabled.

Terry Michael Mincey, convicted in a 1982 slaying, was the last person put to death for a Bibb County murder. He was executed in 2001.

In December 2011, then-DA Greg Winters, citing McDaniel’s alleged crime as one that was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved depravity of mind,” declared that his office aimed to send McDaniel to Georgia’s death row.

Winters declined comment Thursday regarding Cooke’s decision.

Giddings, a Maryland native, was McDaniel’s Mercer University law school classmate and next-door neighbor. She was found dead a month and a half after they graduated.

The two, who were not close as neighbors or students, had stayed on as tenants at their Georgia Avenue apartment complex to study for the state bar exam.

Although McDaniel has been granted a bond on the murder charge he is not eligible for bond on the 30 counts of sexual exploitation of children levied against him after authorities discovered images of child pornography on a flash drive in his apartment.

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

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service