Stephen McDaniel, legal pad in hand, walked into court Wednesday and, for the first time since he was locked up last summer, wasn’t wearing jail garb.
The accused killer had on a flint-gray, three-piece suit, a cream shirt, a maroon tie. He talked to his lawyers. McDaniel, an aspiring lawyer himself, took notes.
Nearly seven months after a slaying that shocked and captivated many locals, the 26-year-old defendant showed maybe the most outward signs yet that he has taken an active role in his defense.
Gone was the gaunt, glazed-over shell of a suspect who trudged into court. He looked attentive, studious even.
McDaniel could face the death penalty for his alleged hand in the late June slaying of Lauren Giddings.
On Wednesday, the first legal baby steps toward a trial that could determine his future -- freedom, prison or death -- played out in a half-hour hearing on the third floor of the Bibb County Courthouse.
The hearing, a formality, was called to hash out capital case ground rules. McDaniel was read the charges against him and told that the state will be seeking the death penalty. His arraignment was set for Feb. 7.
McDaniel’s lawyers hinted Wednesday at what will be a vigorous pretrial defense.
Attorney Floyd Buford and his co-counsel, Franklin J. Hogue, mentioned a number of issues they intend to contest, most of which are routine in death penalty cases.
“My client is not gonna waive anything,” Buford said, adding later that he would also later seek bail for McDaniel.
McDaniel was charged with Giddings’ murder in August. Giddings, 27, had been his law school classmate and next-door neighbor.
McDaniel and Giddings were May 2011 graduates of Mercer’s Walter F. George School of Law. The school is across the street from the Georgia Avenue apartments where they lived, the same complex where Giddings’ torso was found in an outdoor trash can June 30.
Perhaps the most surprising development at Wednesday’s proceeding was the defense’s declaration that it would be filing a conflict-of-interest motion on McDaniel’s behalf. McDaniel worked for a time at the Bibb courthouse.
Buford previously filed a conflict motion seeking to disqualify Bibb prosecutors because McDaniel had been an intern in the District Attorney’s Office. The motion failed.
The new motion, to be filed regarding District Attorney Greg Winters and four other prosecutors, is unrelated to the prior motion, Buford said. He declined to divulge specifics.
Hogue told Chief Superior Court Judge S. Phillip Brown that the defense would, in a coming motion, challenge the makeup of the grand jury that indicted McDaniel.
The measure, a common one in death penalty cases, centers on population statistics provided by the latest census. Demographic data is used to ensure that the makeup of juries, including grand juries, accurately reflects an area’s population in terms of race and gender.
In court, Buford went on to say there “is also gonna be an issue about an arrest warrant that was issued in the case.” He said search-and-seizure, consent search and arrest procedures would also draw defense scrutiny.
McDaniel also faces multiple charges of sexual exploitation of children. That case, indicted separately from the murder charge, also has been assigned to Brown, the Bibb judge presiding over the Giddings case.
On Wednesday, McDaniel sported a swept-back poof of a ponytail. He could have passed for a wide-eyed legal assistant at the defense table. He and his two attorneys, the three of them Mercer law grads, chatted before the hearing.
McDaniel’s outfit was provided by his family. Though it isn’t unusual for lawyers to file motions requiring that defendants be dressed in street clothes and not jailhouse jumpsuits, no such motion has been filed in this case.
McDaniel appeared to catch the gaze of some spectators, including that of one of his alleged victim’s closest friends.
Kristin S. Miller of Atlanta, who met Giddings when the two were undergraduates at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, was sitting in the front row behind the prosecution table.
Miller, 28, an attorney herself, later described what it was like seeing the business-attired McDaniel jotting notes and conferring with counsel.
“He doesn’t look like the monster in the shackles and the orange jumpsuit, but he’s still a monster. ... I’m just kind of surprised he has dropped the zombie act,” Miller, 28, said.
“I made eye contact with him for the first time today and it was chilling. It was disgusting.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.