Stephen Mark McDaniel, the convicted killer who admitted strangling and dismembering Lauren Giddings, his Mercer University law school classmate in June 2011, was back in court Friday, plying his legal acumen in hopes of winning the trial he never had.
But late Friday afternoon a judge here denied his appeal.
McDaniel, now 33, never went to trial because in spring 2014 he pleaded guilty, admitting to the gruesome slaying and was sentenced to life in prison with a chance for parole in 30 or so years.
Though his guilty plea hamstrung most avenues for appeal, he had pursued a fairly common long-shot measure known as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The matter is a civil proceeding and McDaniel was the plaintiff.
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His aim, in part, was to prove that police investigating him violated his rights — failing to advise him of his rights in a timely fashion and conducting an improper search of his residence.
McDaniel became a suspect in the midday hours of June 30, 2011, after Giddings’ torso was found in a garbage can outside the Georgia Avenue apartments where she and McDaniel were neighbors.
McDaniel had contended that his guilty plea was not voluntary and that his two Macon lawyers failed to provide effective counsel.
A hearing for a judge to weigh the merits of McDaniel’s claims began in August. After a day of testimony, the case was continued and it resumed Friday in Richmond County Superior Court, not far from the state prison hospital where McDaniel is a prisoner.
Friday’s six-plus-hour hearing before Judge John Flythe was nothing short of arduous. McDaniel, far from the smoothest of barristers, presented his case slowly and deliberately. At one point, a prison guard watching over McDaniel could be heard sighing and saying to himself, “Lonnng day.”
The day’s developments featured none of the dramatic revelations that came during testimony in August, when one of McDaniel’s attorneys, under persistent questioning by McDaniel, was allowed to pierce the veil of attorney-client privilege and tell the court about McDaniel’s gruesome jailhouse confession to his lawyers. That admission came in spring 2014 on the eve of the trial.
On the stand back in August, attorney Floyd Buford recalled his client’s shocking admission, telling the court how McDaniel told of decapitating Giddings “or carving up her body,” and how McDaniel said he “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.”
Friday, the pale, lanky McDaniel wore a splint on the two middle fingers of his right hand. He was said to have broken one of the fingers the other day when a door slammed while he was delivering something in prison.
McDaniel was flanked by a pair of prison guards for much of Friday’s hearing.
His mother and father, Mark and Glenda McDaniel, sat a couple of rows behind their son.
Before Stephen McDaniel stepped into court Friday morning about 9, one of the guards spoke to McDaniel’s parents and mentioned the splint, suggesting it wouldn’t prevent Stephen from handling folders or papers they had carted in for the case.
“He’s in good spirits,” the guard said of the convicted killer. “He’s pretty resilient. We’ll help him out.”
McDaniel, his hair swept back, wore a wide-eyed look that bordered on constant surprise. Yet he plodded on, not nervous in the least and seemingly unfazed and undeterred by the judge’s occasional admonishments that McDaniel get to the point or refrain from leading witnesses.
McDaniel, though far from polished, was a passable enough counselor. He seemed to find his courtroom legs, serving up question upon question in a monotone, scholarly drone — first for one of his prosecutors and then for the second of his defense attorneys.
When several motions he had filed, including one asking for a continuance, were denied, McDaniel told the judge, “For the record I take exception to all the court’s rulings.”
McDaniel at times more than belabored his points. He often seemed to fall short of even making them.
While questioning Bibb County prosecutor Nancy Scott Malcor, who helped lead the state’s case against him, McDaniel asked her about the hours he spent at the then-Macon Police Department, apparently in police custody, and yet not advised of his rights. McDaniel asked Malcor if she was aware that he was just 25 years old at the time. She said she was not, that she had no idea how old he was.
McDaniel asked that if he told her his birth date was Sept. 9, 1985, could she figure out how old that would have made him in June 2011.
“We’re not gonna do math here,” Judge Flythe told him, and McDaniel was advised to move it along.
McDaniel’s arguments that his rights were violated appeared to gain little traction.
During a break near the end of the hearing, one of Giddings’ best friends and classmates from law school, Ashley Muller, described the day’s proceeding as a one-man “circus.”
Muller was also a classmate of McDaniel’s.
“He’s getting to play lawyer,” she said, “something he never got the chance to do. It’s disgusting in my opinion. ... I always thought Stephen wanted to be infamous. ... This is his last shot to be infamous.”
In McDaniel’s closing remarks before the judge denied his appellate petition, McDaniel sounded his lawyerly best. He admitted to being no courtroom litigator.
“I’m not experienced in presentation of cases,” McDaniel said.
But he suggested that years of seasoning weren’t needed to convey the points he hoped to make, that he wasn’t arguing his guilt or innocence but rather whether he was wronged by the justice system and improper police work.
He spoke of “the rules of law and following legal procedure. And they were not (followed).” He added, “It’s about (the police) screwing up again and again” as they found evidence but poorly documented or mishandled it — including a key to Giddings’ apartment in his apartment, Giddings’ panties in his bedroom and a hacksaw linked to Giddings’ dismemberment, a package for which was found by cops “tromping” through his apartment.
“The police had the opportunity to do a proper investigation,” McDaniel said.
Instead, he said, the homed in on him, “the skinny, long-haired, weird-looking kid with the dark circles around his eyes. They simply said, ‘Let’s make it him.’”
Judge Flythe, however, was unmoved. In a succinct ruling that lasted all of maybe five minutes, he told McDaniel, “I don’t know that I’ve heard a single shred of evidence or testimony that would compel” him to grant an appeal.
McDaniel showed little reaction. Nor did his folks. They walked out, he gathered his papers and 15 or so minutes later he was headed back to prison.