Stephen Mark McDaniel, a confessed killer with a law degree who four years ago pleaded guilty in one of the highest-profile murder cases in Middle Georgia history, had another day in court Friday.
This time he put his legal schooling to work for himself, serving as his own attorney in a last-ditch appeal aimed at winning him the trial that four years ago he chose not to have.
Friday’s proceeding almost assuredly did not go the way McDaniel had intended. Try as he might to avoid them, shocking and gruesome new details of his dismemberment slaying emerged from the mouth of a man who had once been his defense attorney.
Those details included how McDaniel, prior to pleading guilty to killing Lauren Giddings in Macon in late June 2011, told his lawyers how he murdered Giddings, later carving off all of her fingers and flushing them down a toilet.
McDaniel, though, seemed unfazed by the first public airing of that revelation. He plodded on, accompanied in Richmond County Superior Courtroom 2-E by thousands of pages of legal research and case-file paperwork, reams of it in stacks and binders that he has prepared while in prison. His knowledge of textbook law, however, at times seemed lost in a real-world courtroom.
Meanwhile, his mother and father looked on from the front row. His hands and feet were shackled as he clinked and shuffled in extra-white prison sneakers from pile to pile, poring over papers.
Lean, gaunt and almost ghostlike, he called to the stand one of his prosecutors and one of his former defense attorneys, all in hopes of showing how the system had wronged him and that his Hail Mary effort of an appeal would ring home.
Whether it did — unlikely as it may be — will not be known until his other former defense attorney can testify and, in the end, a judge decides on McDaniel’s appeal.
Testimony Friday lasted more than six hours. Only two of the three people McDaniel called to testify took the stand. A date wasn’t set for when the hearing will resume.
At issue in Friday’s habeas corpus proceeding was not whether McDaniel murdered and dismembered the body of his next-door neighbor and classmate the month after they both graduated from Mercer University’s law school. (A crime he pleaded guilty to on the eve of trial in April 2014.)
Rather, what McDaniel was asking Judge John Flythe to consider was whether McDaniel’s rights were violated on his journey to justice, whether his guilty plea was voluntary and whether his two Macon lawyers, a pair of the brightest criminal-defense minds in the region, somehow failed him.
It was a chance for McDaniel, who turns 33 next month, to step into a courtroom and, as more than one observer was heard to say privately Friday, “play lawyer.”
McDaniel has high hurdles to clear to receive appellate relief. Four years into his time in state prison, now as an inmate at an Augusta-area penitentiary for convicts with medical ailments — of which McDaniel’s is publicly unknown, McDaniel has had months, years to study his case, to pick away at its procedural minutia and, if he succeeds, divine his freedom.
Friday served as his moment to match wits with the system he contends did him wrong. He claims, in part, that searches of his apartment were improper, that he was despondent, “catatonic” even, and in no state to allow searches or provide statements to the cops when he first came on investigators’ radar screens the day Giddings’ dismembered torso was found.
Some who are close to the Giddings murder case that landed McDaniel a life sentence — though with a chance at freedom, possibly as soon as the early 2040s — have said privately that his appeal affords McDaniel something he craves: attention, the spotlight.
And a chance, at last, to showcase his legal acumen, or as it may be, lack thereof.
The Giddings murder, widely reported across the region and, early on, nationally, has been featured on a number of television crime docudramas and has been the subject of a recent episode of “Dateline NBC.”
McDaniel’s voice, aside from a widely seen interview he gave reporters on the sidewalk outside his apartment in the hours after Giddings’ torso was found in a curbside trash bin, has rarely been heard.
He spoke in low, measured, steady tones during Friday’s hearing as he methodically questioned witnesses. His manner was deliberate and respectful, quiet and subdued. At times it was almost as if he wasn’t there.
During one long pause while he questioned prosecutor Nancy Scott Malcor, he pored over a transcript in silence for a minute and then two.
The judge prodded McDaniel to move it along.
“Mr. McDaniel, this is your hearing,” Flythe said.
McDaniel later put defense attorney Floyd Buford on the stand, hoping to show McDaniel was out of sorts in the weeks after his arrest. McDaniel asked Buford if he recalled McDaniel’s demeanor in their first visit at the Bibb County jail.
“Weird,” Buford replied.
He described McDaniel on subsequent visits as “nonverbal. … You listened, but there really was not much communication.”
On a later visit when McDaniel did speak up, Buford recalled, “It was shocking. … Stephen McDaniel finally talked.”
After the court’s midday break, as McDaniel tried to impugn Buford’s representation of him, Buford said McDaniel had tried to help in his own defense, but McDaniel’s efforts “were from a law student’s perspective.”
Then Buford took off the gloves.
“You’ve never been in a courtroom in your life,” Buford said. “We called the shots, not you. … You started off facing the death penalty. You ended up receiving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. … You didn’t want to go to trial. You wanted to plead guilty.”
With Buford still on the stand, the veil of attorney-client privilege that he and McDaniel once had was pierced. Despite the judge’s repeated warnings about the treacherous territory McDaniel was inquiring about, McDaniel proceeded to ask what developments in his murder case had prompted negotiations of a guilty plea between his lawyers and prosecutors.
Investigators on the eve of McDaniel’s trial had found video footage on a camera McDaniel owned that showed him using the camera to peer into Giddings’ apartment the night she was killed. Buford, in answering McDaniel’s inquiry, revealed that after being confronted with that finding, McDaniel broke down and confessed to his attorneys.
Buford, with the judge’s blessing, recalled the moment from the stand, how McDaniel described the murder in full.
“Up until the last couple of weeks of your case,” Buford began, “I was strongly in your corner, believing you were innocent. I felt that you were innocent. But this (evidence) that came in ... that was very important.”
Buford went on to tell of the “graphic” and detailed jailhouse confession that McDaniel gave to him and co-counsel Franklin J. Hogue.
“Which we were shocked about. ... In which you went into terrific detail,” Buford said, “about how you killed Lauren Giddings and how you went about decapitating her or carving up her body, how you even sat down and cut off every finger and bone and appendage on her hands and threw them all in the toilet and flushed it at one time.”
Buford said that, coupled with information authorities discovered on McDaniel’s computer, including “the most horrific” child pornography as well as internet searches for “sex with dead people,” presented an insurmountable hurdle for McDaniel’s defense.
McDaniel showed no emotion to his former lawyer’s troubling remarks.
As McDaniel had done for much of the day, and as he did for the next couple of hours, he kept asking questions, one after another, as any seasoned lawyer might, with unflappable, easy calm. Though not, perhaps, the way one would whose client was a confessed murderer — one whose client was himself.