McDaniel lawyer attacks master key evidence

awomack@macon.comSeptember 17, 2013 

A lawyer for accused killer Stephen McDaniel questioned a crime scene technician Tuesday in an apparent effort to allege a master key and a key to Lauren Giddings’ apartment were improperly seized from McDaniel’s apartment by police.

Pretrial hearings began Monday in Bibb Superior Court for McDaniel, who is accused of killing Giddings, his Mercer University law school classmate and next door neighbor. Giddings’ torso was discovered June 30, 2011, in a trash can outside the Georgia Avenue apartments where Giddings and McDaniel lived.

Attorney Franklin J. Hogue questioned Macon police Sgt. Bobby Newberry about a series of crime scene photos Tuesday morning.

It was the first time pictures of the inside of the apartments -- where prosecutors are expected to say McDaniel dismembered Giddings -- have been shown in open court.

Newberry testified that police generally take photos before a search warrant is executed to document the scene.

Comparing photos taken June 30 and July 1, Hogue asked Newberry if he could see keys on McDaniel’s dresser. Newberry testified he didn’t see the keys in a photo taken before the first search warrant was served at McDaniel’s apartment on June 30, but they were visible in a picture from July 1.

“I believe the keys were obscured beneath something that was moved,” Newberry said. It’s not uncommon for items to be shifted around during a search, he said.

At issue is whether the keys were in plain view and could be seized without them being listed in a search warrant.

Detective Chuck Whitaker testified Monday that he helped search the apartment July 1.

He said the keys caught his eye after he had finished reviewing papers found in a dresser drawer. Whitaker explained that he placed the papers on the dresser to read them and noticed the keys when he put the papers back in the drawer where they were found.

Whitaker said he took the keys next door and tried them in Giddings’ lock. Both fit. He admitted he wasn’t wearing gloves while handling the keys.

Police have said there was no sign of forced entry into Giddings’ apartment.

Hogue also asked Newberry to review photos taken of the apartments July 3 to see if he saw a “Do not enter” sticker on McDaniel’s door, preserving the apartment for future searches.

Newberry said he saw a seal on Giddings’ door, but not on McDaniel’s. He said he didn’t remember whether police were inside the apartment at the time of the photo, but the apartments should have been under 24-hour guard for at least a week.

Evidence shows search warrants were served at McDaniel’s apartment, and evidence was seized as late as three weeks after Giddings’ torso was discovered.

Sgt. William Brown also testified Tuesday that he was ordered to drive McDaniel to the police detective bureau June 30, 2011, to place him in an interview room and to guard him.

McDaniel’s lawyers have argued that their client’s statements to police weren’t given voluntarily and should not be presented at trial.

Monday’s testimony showed McDaniel went to the detective bureau twice June 30, 2011, and he sat in an interview room for hours being recorded by a hidden camera even when police were out of the room.

Brown, who was assigned to the police bicycle patrol in 2011, said McDaniel rode in the back of his marked police car that morning, but he was not in custody.

Brown said he sat outside the interview room, guarding McDaniel for about two hours.

Watching video from the hidden camera, Brown admitted his voice was recorded talking on a cellphone saying he was watching someone he called the “main suspect” and identified as a “bushy haired guy.” Testimony on Monday misidentified the voice as belonging to a police captain.

McDaniel’s lawyers fast-forwarded the recording about 35 minutes, and Brown again identified his voice as talking on a cellphone asking another officer to come and relieve him at his post watching McDaniel because he needed to leave.

Witnesses, whether they’re in custody or not, are not allowed to roam the halls, Brown said.

Asked whether McDaniel was free to leave if he wanted, Brown replied, “I couldn’t stop him.”

Testimony in the pretrial hearings concluded Tuesday morning, but an additional hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 21 and Nov. 22 due to a scheduling conflict.

One of the issues being argued by McDaniel’s lawyers and prosecutors concerns the admissibility of cadaver dog evidence at trial. Expert witnesses for both sides were unavailable for hearings that began Monday and continued into Tuesday morning. A separate hearing will be scheduled to hear the experts’ testimony.

Transcripts from Monday’s and Tuesday’s hearings must be prepared so both sides can write legal briefs that will aid the judge as he decides several pretrial issues disputed by prosecutors and McDaniel’s legal team.

Jury selection in McDaniel’s trial is set to begin in January.

More than two years after the killing, prosecutors still are awaiting test results for hair evidence submitted to the FBI’s crime lab in Quantico, Va., according to the district attorney’s office.

McDaniel’s attorneys have long said their client is helping mount his own defense, and in court this week the meek-looking murder defendant eagerly did so. Putting to work the law degree he earned just a month and a half before going to jail, McDaniel jotted copious notes and on more than one occasion passed them to his lawyers.

Clad in the same gray pin-striped suit that one of his attorneys always brings for him to wear in court, McDaniel, who turns 28 on Friday, often appeared rapt by the testimony. He whispered into the ear of one of his lawyers multiple times during the proceedings.

After the hearings concluded, he was led in chains to a courthouse elevator, clutching a brown accordion file of legal papers.

Writer Joe Kovac Jr. contributed to this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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