The blunt, one-page letter from the criminal defense attorney to his former client in prison pulls no punches.
The ex-client, himself a law school graduate and murderer who stalked his victim, now appears primed, in part, to blame his lawyers for his conviction. He has mailed them letters, sought court orders and sent his own investigator to fetch the voluminous case file his two counselors compiled while representing him.
On multiple occasions, the attorneys have informed the ex-client that they have given him all they have. (It is, in fact, their duty to provide such materials.)
But the ex-client hasn’t stopped asking.
The ex-client, Stephen Mark McDaniel, Macon’s most notorious killer of the past quarter-century, is serving a life sentence for the 2011 murder and dismemberment of Lauren Giddings.
McDaniel, who like Giddings was a 2011 Mercer University law school grad, was jailed soon after part of her body was found in a trash can at the Georgia Avenue apartments where the two were next-door neighbors. McDaniel pleaded guilty and confessed on the eve of trial in spring 2014.
As one might expect, McDaniel has recently begun putting his law degree to work. He appears to be crafting a long-shot appeal. Such a maneuver will be hamstrung because those who plead guilty relinquish most avenues of appeal.
Even so, there are things he may look to travel on, including making claims that his attorneys failed to fully represent him.
Since late spring, McDaniel has repeatedly asked for the full case file his lawyers amassed. The materials are considered the property of the client.
McDaniel has mailed the lawyers letters, tersely phrased in parts — “I want everything, by which I mean everything” — requesting any materials they have. That includes pictures, notes and documents that prosecutors may have shared with them.
Late this summer, the lawyers, Floyd M. Buford Jr. and Franklin J. Hogue, replied that they had sent McDaniel all they have.
McDaniel insisted they have not.
Hogue, 62, the Indiana-raised, great-grandson of a Dodge City, Kansas, deputy sheriff, and Buford, 59, the son of a civil rights-era U.S. attorney, are two of the region’s most well-regarded criminal lawyers.
In an affidavit accompanying some of McDaniel’s court motions, his own private investigator, Craig Douglass of Macon, mentioned meeting Buford in June. The meeting happened not long after McDaniel began seeking materials to craft an appeal.
“(Buford) stated he does not believe it’s best that this be pursued,” Douglass wrote in the affidavit, “reasoning that there were things that McDaniel revealed that would be extremely damaging to McDaniel’s family should he have to testify.”
When asked about the prospect of his former client seeking an appeal, Buford recently told The Telegraph, “I don’t know what he’s planning to do.”
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for McDaniel to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a common form of appeal that would contend his constitutional rights were somehow violated. He has four years from his 2014 conviction to file. His time expires in April.
In August, McDaniel complained to the State Bar of Georgia about Buford and Hogue. Bar officials reviewed and dismissed the grievance.
Enter the not-so-subtle letter.
Hogue, who declined to comment on the matter, wrote the letter to McDaniel a couple of weeks ago at the state bar’s behest.
To anyone who has closely followed McDaniel’s recent maneuverings, Hogue’s missive can be interpreted as a seasoned attorney putting an ex-client — one with a law degree, no less — in his place.
The letter begins with Hogue mentioning how he had “again reviewed the file” to see if there was anything that hadn’t been turned over to McDaniel.
The second sentence reads like a prosecutorial parting shot:
The only two items that I can determine that we omitted were (1) a digital file provided to us by the State in discovery that contained approximately 1,600 photos that the State alleged you stole from Lauren Giddings’s computer during one of your unauthorized entries into her apartment before you murdered her and (2) links to thousands of images of child pornography that you downloaded and viewed on your computer.
Hogue concludes by telling McDaniel that if “you believe I possess items other than the contraband named above, which I will not send to you or to anybody else, then please identify them and we will look again.”
McDaniel, who turns 32 on Wednesday, has filed motions in two counties asking judges to force his defense team to turn over the materials — the most recent filing coming after the lawyers informed him that he has everything.
McDaniel’s filings have been hampered by legal missteps that a law school graduate should probably know better than to make.
He has filed motions in Bibb County, where he was convicted, regarding a potential appeal, asking that his lawyers hand over his case files. But the beginnings of any appeal he might pursue — a habeas petition — has to be filed in the county where he is incarcerated. (Lately that has been Richmond County, home to Augusta State Medical Prison, and prison officials won’t divulge why he is there.)
Bibb County courts have no jurisdiction in the matter, and Bibb Superior Court Judge Howard Z. Simms has ruled as such, dismissing McDaniel’s motion. Simms, on the bench when McDaniel pleaded guilty, sentenced him to life in prison and declared McDaniel “truly evil.”
Though McDaniel does not elaborate, in a recent court filing he cited what he deems the judge’s “own misconduct” as grounds for his impending appeal.
Last week McDaniel filed a motion in Richmond County similar to the one Simms dismissed, asking that his former lawyers hand over all of his case materials and also urging the court there to delay the April deadline for his time to appeal.
The move is legally flawed. He is, in essence, filing a motion to make his former lawyers give him materials they contend they have already given him, and he is doing so in a case that doesn’t yet exist. It is akin to asking a judge to order a reckless driver pay for totaling your car before you file a lawsuit.
The appeals process would likely begin with a habeas petition, which McDaniel has yet to file.
There are indications that when McDaniel gets around to filing that petition, he will contend Buford and Hogue did not pursue the avenues McDaniel thought best applied to his murder case.
Among them, quite possibly: McDaniel’s perceived violation of his constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure by the police, which his lawyers unsuccessfully argued early on.
McDaniel, however, may claim that Hogue and Buford did not challenge the searches thoroughly enough or, perhaps, in the manner he wanted them to.
Such an angle may be alluded to in one of McDaniel’s recent motions — one requesting that his lawyers “turn over all analysis of discovery materials performed by Petitioner due to failure of Hogue and Buford to carry out such analysis.”
‘Obsessed with power’
Still, for McDaniel, the effort is a legal Hail Mary.
He will have to prove that a constitutional right was violated.
He may well claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, arguing that his lawyers did not properly litigate his rights against improper search and seizure. And, possibly, that his right to a jury trial was negated because he pleaded guilty instead, not knowing what he needed to know to best defend himself.
His petition, when filed, will likely get the treatment all such petitions receive. There will probably be an evidentiary hearing where McDaniel may subpoena witnesses — his lawyers, no doubt, and others close to the case.
In a crime that has attracted national attention and recently been turned into fodder for a handful of television crime shows, such a proceeding would likely be a media circus.
And that, aside from his near-futile try to win his freedom, may be what McDaniel is aiming for.
He faces the prospect of not being eligible for parole until he is in his mid-50s.
“Stephen believed he was smarter than everybody else,” a former college roommate of McDaniel’s told The Telegraph in the months after McDaniel’s arrest.
The former roommate went on to wonder that while in law school maybe McDaniel realized “he wasn’t the smartest guy in the world.”
Though the odds are long, if McDaniel prevails in his appellate efforts, the prize could be the jury trial he never had. He would earn what amounts to a legal do-over. He would return to the news in a big way.
Not to the level of, say, Ted Bundy or the Zodiac Killer, serial murderers that a former friend of McDaniel’s at Mercer University once said McDaniel raved about “like they were movie stars.”
The spectacle of a trial and finally having his day in court might, for McDaniel, bear a certain attraction.
Such a development might afford him some semblance of an identity, a forum to show off his legal acumen, an opportunity to wield his wit.
As McDaniel’s college roommate put it in an interview not long after Giddings was killed: “He was obsessed with power. Everything to him was a power game.”