Wrongful death suit seeks search for Giddings’ remains

Telegraph staffJune 17, 2013 

In a $5 million-plus wrongful death lawsuit, the parents of slain Mercer University law graduate Lauren Giddings contend that her accused killer stole pictures of her and, after dismembering her, painted over blood stains on her apartment walls.

In hopes of finding her remains, they want a federal judge to let them search farmland that belonged to one of suspect Stephen McDaniel’s grandfathers.

The suit, filed Monday in federal court in Macon, comes eight days shy of the two-year anniversary of the last time Giddings was seen alive. Her torso was found in a curbside trash bin at her Georgia Avenue apartment June 30, 2011.

Her father, Billy Giddings, says the civil case he and his wife, Karen, are pursuing isn’t about money as much as it is an avenue to search for the lost remains of their daughter. She would have turned 29 in April.

“As far as I know, (McDaniel) has nothing and never will,” Billy Giddings said by phone from Maryland, where Lauren was from. “We’re just looking for ... information. ... It’s just pretty frustrating for us not to get any answers. And it’s been two years. ... We can’t get over not finding the rest of her.”

From early on in the murder investigation, the Giddings family has wanted to thoroughly search a 63-acre tract where McDaniel’s maternal grandfather, the late Hollis Browning, lived until his death last year.

The lawsuit alleges that McDaniel, 27, visited the Pike County farm, an hour or so west of Macon, the weekend before Giddings was killed. It was Father’s Day, but the suit contends McDaniel went there looking “for locations where he could scatter dismembered body parts through the woods.”

Investigators never searched the property.

Billy Giddings said, “I still would like to have cadaver dogs search that.”

The suit mentions claims made by a college roommate of McDaniel’s at Mercer in 2007, before McDaniel enrolled in law school and was Giddings’ next-door neighbor on Georgia Avenue. The roommate said McDaniel spoke of committing the “perfect murder,” and that he would dismember his victim and “scatter the parts through the woods so that no one would ever find them.”

McDaniel, the suit contends, “bragged to his roommate that he would never get caught” and that he “wanted to feel the power of having someone’s life in his hands.”

The lawsuit cites McDaniel’s behavior as being “consistent with his perverse hope to get away with the perfect murder” and that he “displays no conscience and remorse whatsoever.”

The two-dozen-page complaint goes on to note McDaniel’s alleged possession of a master key to doors in the apartment complex where he and Giddings lived. The two were still tenants there in June 2011 while they studied for the Georgia bar exam on the heels of graduating law school that May.

The suit says McDaniel used an unoccupied apartment beneath Giddings’ to “store” her dismembered torso, and that her DNA was found in that apartment’s refrigerator.

It also says a computer thumb drive bearing pictures of her “was stolen from her apartment by McDaniel prior to her murder” and later found in his apartment. The suits says he “took numerous steps” to conceal the slaying, “including painting over blood stains on the walls” of Giddings’ residence.

The lawyers representing McDaniel in his criminal case said Monday that they had not seen a copy of the civil suit.

McDaniel’s attorney Floyd Buford, who practices both criminal and civil law, reserved comment until he’s reviewed the court filing.

Franklin J. Hogue, another member of McDaniel’s defense team, doesn’t take civil cases.

‘Wants some accountability’

Although Hogue has handled about 70 murder cases in his career, he hasn’t seen his clients sued in wrongful death cases very often.

Another client was recently sued, however.

Family members of slain Houston County legal assistant Jessica Wolfe filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hogue’s client, Russell Holt, in April. Holt, a former probation officer and Wolfe’s boyfriend, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in April and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Kelly Burke, the lawyer representing Wolfe’s family, said Holt’s lawyer hasn’t filed a response to the suit, which seeks an unspecified amount of money.

Burke said filing a suit is another way for families to seek justice.

“Sometimes the victim’s family just wants some accountability and maybe they feel they didn’t get it in the (criminal) proceeding and they want it in the civil proceeding,” he said.

The burden of proof is different in the civil arena, Burke said, citing the example of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted in the murders of his ex-wife and another man. A judge later ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million in damages to their families.

In the lawsuit against Holt, Burke said he waited to file until after Holt’s criminal case was done because the timing fell within the two-year statute of limitations.

But in some cases, lawsuits must be filed while the criminal case is ongoing.

Hogue said some civil defense attorneys request a “stay” -- a time when the lawsuit is put on hold -- until the criminal case is finished.

But Burke said judges aren’t always inclined to grant the postponement.

If the stay is denied, a defendant might be faced with the quandary of choosing to take advantage of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent despite the risk of his not answering questions. Not answering could potentially cast him in a negative light civilly, Burke said.

Hogue said, if it comes to it, he will advise McDaniel not to answer questions while his criminal case is pending.

McDaniel’s criminal attorneys have filed a motion requesting that his $850,000 bond be lowered, saying the amount is more than his family can pay.

The Giddingses are represented by close friends of Lauren’s, Kristin S. Miller, a now-lawyer she met as an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, and Miller’s father, Richard A. “Doc” Schneider.

Schneider, a partner in the prominent Atlanta-based King & Spalding firm, graduated from Mercer’s law school in 1981 and has served on the university’s board of trustees.

The company insuring the Georgia Avenue apartment complex where Giddings and McDaniel lived settled a lawsuit with the Giddings family in late 2012. The amount of the settlement has not been disclosed, but it was less than $1 million.

Billy Giddings won’t be surprised if the civil case filed Monday takes a while to make it through the court system.

“I assume this will probably be dragged out for longer than we would like,” he said. “This is something we have to do at this point.”

Then he choked up.

“It’s a struggle. That’s about all I can say. It’s a struggle,” he said. “Some days are better than others.”

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

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