A south Georgia judge ruled Friday that a Macon judge should continue presiding over the Stephen McDaniel death penalty case.
After the decision in Bibb County Superior Court, McDaniel, before he was led back to jail, shook hands with his lawyers and smiled. One of his attorneys patted him on the shoulder.
Before Friday’s hearing, McDaniel’s lawyers had all but accused prosecutors of “judge shopping” or trying to get Chief Judge S. Phillip Brown taken off the case.
Bibb prosecutors had requested that Brown review the guidelines for how Macon Circuit capital cases are given to judges to ensure that the proper order of assignment had been followed.
Judge Ronnie Joe Lane, from Seminole County, was called in to serve as something of an arbitrator over what has been a preliminary point of contention in one of the highest-profile murder cases in recent local history.
McDaniel, 26, is charged in the June 2011 dismemberment killing of his Mercer University law school classmate and next-door neighbor, 27-year-old Lauren Giddings.
Lane, in dismissing the prosecution’s motion, questioned why prosecutors would care if a judge was improperly assigned to the case if the defense did not object.
He noted that prosecutors can manipulate the system to indirectly choose a judge for a capital case. They can choose the order for when they file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty in each capital case.
“The defense has no similar advantage,” Lane said.
In the Macon Judicial Circuit, death cases are assigned to judges based on judges’ seniority and how many active cases each judge is handling.
Franklin J. Hogue, one of McDaniel’s attorneys, contended that the prosecution’s motion was akin to their saying, “I didn’t like the answers I got in two letters I got from the judge.”
Assistant District Attorney Nancy Scott Malcor said prosecutors noticed that capital cases in the circuit have recently been assigned in two different ways by two judges. Malcor said the district attorney’s office simply sought to determine whether an error had been made, and if one had, to get guidance on how to correct it.
“The state became aware of a possible error,” she said. “We wanted to bring it to the court’s attention. Judge Brown said to file a motion and that’s why we’re here. ... It’s not saying we don’t like this judge or we like that judge.”
District Attorney Greg Winters said prosecutors have filed similar motions inquiring how judges were assigned in two other death penalty cases.
He said prosecutors will wait to receive Lane’s written order and to see the result of the motions filed in the two other cases before determining whether to appeal Lane’s decision.
Hogue said afterward that said the district attorney’s motion was “a waste of time.”
During Friday’s half-hour hearing, a Bibb public defender sat beside two members of Lauren Giddings’ family. At least one other public defender was in the courtroom wearing a pink ribbon on his lapel. Giddings worked as a law clerk at the Bibb County Public Defender’s Office from June 2010 until she graduated from Mercer’s law school last May.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.