Editor’s note: This article contains courtroom accounts that readers may find offensive.
Stephen McDaniel stared straight ahead while the prosecutor who wants to send him to death row read a boastful Internet posting that McDaniel allegedly wrote about plying a "sexy"neighbor with alcohol, which knocks her out. The post mentions having sex and then, after the neighbor dies, discarding her torso.
Tuesday, eight months and a day after he was charged with murder, McDaniel was in Bibb County Superior Court for a hearing about how much it may cost to get him out of jail.
The 26-year-old is accused in the June slaying and dismemberment of his fellow Mercer University law school graduate Lauren Giddings, a blond-haired 27-year-old from Maryland.
Never miss a local story.
Police found Giddings’ torso wrapped in trash bags outside her Georgia Avenue apartment building June 30, five days after she was last seen alive.
Chief Judge S. Phillip Brown didn’t make a bond ruling Tuesday. He did, however, express concern that the defense didn’t provide testimony from a mental-health expert about whether McDaniel is a risk to hurt himself.
“I’m not inclined to ignore that possibility,” the judge said.
Franklin J. Hogue, one of McDaniel’s lawyers, said his client is “perfectly healthy in mind and body” and has not been suicidal.
During the hearing, the often wide-eyed McDaniel answered questions from his attorneys and the judge with enthusiastic nods that were snappish and almost birdlike.
During a 10-minute recess Tuesday, he sat in a third-floor room with 30 or so observers and pored over paperwork at the defense table, apparently paying no mind to the free-world conversations going on among spectators milling about and chatting at his left.
It was perhaps the longest that McDaniel, since his arrest, has been outside of jail in the presence of so many while outside a judge’s view. Onlookers Tuesday included a professor from his law school, four of his alleged victim’s kin, her boyfriend and a fellow law graduate and neighbor whom he on occasion went out with for burgers.
McDaniel’s parents didn’t attend the hearing.
Later, Hogue and attorney Floyd Buford presented evidence to support claims that McDaniel isn’t likely to flee, hurt anyone, try to intimidate witnesses or break the law if released.
Glenda McDaniel, McDaniel’s mother, testified in an affidavit that her son has strong ties to Gwinnett County where he was raised and attended church.
Defense evidence also included family-history documents that claim the McDaniel family was a founding family of what is now Lilburn, and that McDaniel’s ancestors were in Georgia two decades before the American Revolution.
Letters of reference written by McDaniel’s professors for his entrance to law school and a clerkship application were given to the judge, as was an affidavit signed by Mercer professor Jack Sammons on Friday describing McDaniel, his former student.
Sammons said McDaniel was “dependable, conscientious and gentle” and that he “never once saw a sign that Stephen would be a risk to anyone,” according to the affidavit.
McDaniel’s father, Mark, also testified by affidavit that he earns approximately $1,000 during a “good week” as a house painter. He wrote that his wife lost her job as a preschool music teacher and now has no income. Although they own their house, it is worth less than $200,000. The family’s assets are limited, and their household income is “sporadic,” the affidavit said.
Mark McDaniel said his family would have “great difficulty” posting bond for his son if it exceeded $100,000.
District Attorney Greg Winters requested a $2.5 million bond for McDaniel. He also requested that the bond require McDaniel to be confined to his parents’ house and have an ankle monitor.
A seven-figure bond, McDaniel’s attorneys countered, would be the same as denying him bond.
Hogue argued that for a bond to be “reasonable,” it must be set at an amount a jailed person can pay.
“There’s no way the McDaniel family could post” $2.5 million, he said.
Giddings family member Kathy Mann said the district attorney’s office tried to prepare relatives before the hearing so they wouldn’t be as shocked when they heard graphic evidence in court.
“It still leaves you kind of limp,” Mann said after the hearing.
Flanked by family members, Mann said she felt her hands tingle in the courtroom.
“It’s like how your body feels when you’ve just had a fright,” she said.
Mann said the suggestion made by McDaniel’s attorneys that he be released on $100,000 bond was insulting. She said she finds comfort in knowing that McDaniel must be granted a bond in the child pornography and burglary cases, for which he’s also separately charged, before he can get out of jail.
Winters, in arguing against a murder-charge bond, summarized some of the evidence against McDaniel.
Winters said that because some of Giddings’ body parts were missing, police used cadaver dogs to search the Georgia Avenue apartments. Police asked residents for permission for the dogs to search their homes.
Winters said McDaniel told police that if the dogs sensed anything, it was because something “jumped on me while I was walking through the parking lot.”
McDaniel, sitting across the courtroom to Winters’ right, shook his head no. With a puzzled look on his face, McDaniel picked up a blue pen and began writing on a piece of paper.
Winters continued: “That, of course, raised the suspicions to law enforcement, but he did allow them to go inside the apartment, and the dogs alerted inside his apartment.”
The district attorney also noted other elements of the prosecution’s case:
Police found a “balled up” pair of panties with Giddings’ DNA in McDaniel’s bedroom sock drawer. The Telegraph first reported that discovery in November.
A master key to the apartment complex and a key to Giddings’ apartment were found in McDaniel’s bedroom.
Police discovered a large, bloody sheet in a washing machine in the apartment complex’s laundry room. A hacksaw with human flesh was found in a locked storage closet in the laundry room. It looked to have been “cleaned but where it’s kind of screwed in at the base to keep the blade in place, it also (appeared) to have ... blood on it,” Winters said. Blood on the saw matched Giddings’ DNA. The Telegraph first reported the saw’s discovery soon after his arrest on the murder charge.
Packaging for the saw was found in McDaniel’s apartment.
Winters also mentioned McDaniel’s alleged posts on an Internet message board.
He said authorities linked McDaniel to the posts using McDaniel’s online moniker “SoL,” which stands for Son of Liberty. Winters said investigators combed the posts and found a photograph of McDaniel posing with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Winters said detectives also interviewed a man who traveled to Macon to help McDaniel prepare for a law school mock trial exercise. The man, whom McDaniel met on the message board, identified McDaniel as “SoL,” Winters said.
The Telegraph first reported several of McDaniel’s Internet posts in August after independently verifying they were his.
Tuesday in court, Winters read aloud a graphic and profane post in which McDaniel wrote about an encounter with an attractive acquaintance.
“Graduate from law school,” the prosecutor read, addressing the judge. “Party hard by drinking alone in front of my computer. See my sexy neighbor/classmate come home late. She has talked to me occasionally in the past. Has wanted (to have sex) for three years. Invite her up for a nightcap, make her a special drink called a Mickey Finn.”
Winters explained that a Mickey Finn is a drink “laced with drugs to make you unconscious.”
Then he continued reading: “She’s out cold. I finally lose my V-card. Oh, no, she OD’d and died. I barbecue her legs and arms to celebrate losing my V-card. Not into organ meat, but throw her torso out, lose it on TV while the cops are discovering her remains, you mad virgins.”
When he finished, at the defense table, McDaniel’s eyes were shut.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.