MARSHALL: Spy video disturbing to watch, but key to McDaniel story

smarshall@macon.comJune 29, 2014 

Why did Stephen McDaniel finally plead guilty to murdering his law school classmate Lauren Giddings?

It was in large part the discovery of video he had taken of her apartment. He took that video late at night, using a long stick with a camera attached, which he hoisted high enough to se inside her second-floor apartment. The Telegraph was the first to report this video existed, along with a photo McDaniel took in Lauren’s apartment, which he used a key to enter while she was away.

Late last week, The Telegraph got access to the video. Joe Kovac Jr. and Amy Leigh Womack, the reporters who have covered the McDaniel case, along with their supervisor, Oby Brown, senior editor for local news, viewed the video clips -- none of which showed Lauren. They recommended which ones we should post to macon.com.

Feedback from readers is important to us. We had heard during some of our coverage after McDaniel’s April 21 plea that some readers were fed up with the coverage. We wrote a lot about the evidence and posted dozens of photos as well as tapes of interviews with McDaniel and others. Some readers wrote in the comments section or on Facebook that we were going overboard. Some were harsher, accusing us of being sensational and insensitive to the dead and to Lauren’s family.

We had multiple discussions about the bulk of material we had at hand and how much of it was worth sharing with the public. Despite the way it may have appeared, we didn’t share everything, but it is fair to say we erred on the side of openness.

More than a few news operations have refused to publish information considered highly offensive or insensitive. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, viewers have seldom seen major news operations display pictures of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center towers. The Telegraph has declined to publish photos showing the uncovered bodies of homicide or accident victims, scenes of bloody war atrocities or the raw angst of a policeman discovering the body of a child left in a hot car.

We did not view the latest video clips in the same light as those instances. The clips showing what McDaniel saw as he spied on Lauren weren’t particularly surprising. They didn’t show anything distasteful. And again, Lauren was not in any of the clips.

Yet some of us who saw the clips deemed them creepy, and we suspected some readers would, too. The clips had an impact beyond the rather benign content. They are discomforting to watch. That’s because we all know what happened after McDaniel took that video.

What has always struck me about this case is how Lauren never had a chance. There doesn’t appear to be anything she could have done to protect herself from McDaniel. It is human nature to try to find an answer when bad things happen. There is no answer here. That makes many of us feel vulnerable. The notion that a neighbor, a classmate or an acquaintance might spy on us in the middle of the night, might be able to do to us what McDaniel did to Lauren, is almost unfathomable. That may be, at least in part, why the video clips feel so over the top for some readers.

How might this case have played out if defense lawyers and prosecutors had discovered it earlier? McDaniel thought he had erased the evidence. Someone, perhaps belatedly, understood that things erased aren’t always gone forever. The video was recovered. Key photos were recovered. With that and other evidence, McDaniel ­-- finally -- was sunk.

That is the story we have tried to tell. We understand and respect that there are readers who disagree with all that we have told or shown.

Sherrie Marshall is The Telegraph’s executive editor. She can be reached at 478-744-4340 or via email at smarshall@macon.com. Also follow her on Twitter@shemarsh.

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