Crime, Deaths, Federalist Society, Law Schools, Murder, Nancy Grace, Police, Prisons, Violence

A Closer Look at Stephen McDaniel, Lauren Giddings, and Mercer Law School

Stephen McDaniel

I just realized that I share several things in common with Stephen Mark McDaniel, the recent Mercer Law School graduate who has been charged with the grisly murder of his former classmate, Lauren Giddings.

During law school, I served as vice-president of my law school’s Federalist Society chapter. So did Stephen McDaniel (under Lauren Giddings, who served as president).

Through the Federalist Society, I got to meet one of my heroes, Justice Clarence Thomas. So did Stephen McDaniel, who expressed his admiration for Justice Thomas’s integrity.

I once aspired to be a prosecutor and a federal judge. So did Stephen McDaniel, who hoped to serve as a prosecutor on his way to realizing his dream of serving on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stephen McDaniel’s mother, Glenda McDaniel, once asked her son whether romance was possible between him and any woman. My mother has posed similar questions of me.

Lauren Giddings

And this, thankfully, is where the similarities end. My hair, while sometimes problematic, doesn’t look like the result of “a grizzly bear banging Bob Marley’s mom” (as one ATL tipster described McDaniel’s mane). In law school, I wore khakis and button-down shirts to class, not chain mail (which doesn’t sound very comfortable). I have never been accused of burglarizing apartments (to steal condoms). And I’ve certainly never been accused of murder.

As we reported last night, Stephen M. McDaniel, 25, has been charged with the horrific murder of Lauren Giddings, 27, a bright and beautiful recent graduate of Mercer Law. Giddings’s decapitated torso was found on June 30. The search for the rest of her remains continues.

Let’s take a closer look at this deeply disturbing case….

We’ll begin with the latest developments and work our way backwards. As mentioned in last night’s story, the Macon police department scheduled a press conference for this afternoon, to discuss the murder charge just lodged against Stephen McDaniel. Here’s what happened, according to 13WMAZ:

Macon police chief Mike Burns said the evidence in the Lauren Giddings murder investigation led only to the suspect, Stephen McDaniel….

In a prepared statement, Burns said: “We interviewed many people of interest. Those interviews led to more people we needed to talk to. All of the evidence that we have — that we received back — ended up linking to one person.” ….

He said police collected over 200 pieces of evidence but would not discuss them. He would not say where investigators believe Lauren Giddings was killed, or how.

“It’s not our job to try anyone in the media or the court of public opinion,” he said. Burns said police would continue to investigate up until a trial.

Burns issued this important reminder: “[R]emember, every citizen is considered innocent until proven guilty.” And that’s absolutely right: Stephen McDaniel might be strange, but that doesn’t make him a murderer.

Might be strange? He’s definitely strange. In addition to the bizarre hairstyle and the allegations that he’d wear chain mail to class, his neighbors viewed McDaniel as an oddball. His downstairs neighbor, Evelyn Spencer, gave this account:

Spencer said that during the three and a half years she and her son have lived there, she occasionally heard McDaniel, who lived there most of that time, “run from one room to the other. … And, oooh, he could curse. My goodness.”

Spencer said he drove a dark-blue import, perhaps a Subaru, with a “Pray” bumper sticker on the back.

She said she sometimes heard him playing what sounded like a video game. “He’d be up there cursing, ‘Go ahead, you S.B.!’ … talking to the game,” Spencer said.

She could recall just one conversation with McDaniel, a recent one, during their time as neighbors. She said a few weeks back he told her about a cat that had five kittens in the bushes nearby.

“He was just sitting there looking in all them weeds,” Spencer said.

She said she never saw “any friends, no women or men, visit him.”

Here are additional allegations about Stephen McDaniel that we’ve heard from Mercer Law community members who have contacted us:

  • McDaniel has an “ultra-conservative” father and was “a staunch Tea Partier,” as reflected in the disturbing emails he supposedly sent to classmates. (We are trying to obtain these emails; if you have copies, please send them our way.)
  • McDaniel “was very publicly harangued by the student body after calling Obama a communist”; it was after this episode that he started “wearing chain mail to class.”
  • Ever since a 2008 student suicide, questions have been raised about the adequacy of mental health services offered at Mercer Law School — and whether they could have helped McDaniel. “I don’t know what kind of problems Stephen suffered from,” said one source, “but I do believe that they could have been managed.”

(Note: McDaniel might have issues, but any strangeness on his part should not be used to stereotype or unfairly caricature all conservatives or people with right-of-center leanings (like myself). After all, Lauren Giddings was president of the Federalist Society at Mercer, and there’s no evidence that she was anything but a lovely — and perfectly well-adjusted — person.)

Commentator Chelsea Hoffman offers this summary of Stephen McDaniel:

Stephen McDaniel does seem like a pretty weird guy. Every image of him online shows this wild-haired and squirrely character that kind of summons mental images of the Simpson’s character, Sideshow Bob.

And who breaks into apartments to steal condoms when they are only like a buck in a gas station? This seems like stealing wasn’t the chief motive when that is all that is missing from two different dwellings in his apartment complex. It would be interesting to know if these apartments were dwelled in by male or female students.

Yes, that’s right: the two burglary charges against Stephen McDaniel arise out of claims that he stole single condoms from two separate apartments.

But did McDaniel have to “break[] into” any apartments? It is alleged that he had a pass key that allowed him access to many (if not all) apartments in Barristers Hall, the building where he and Lauren Giddings were neighbors. Could that pass key have worked in Lauren Giddings’s lock?

Speaking of Barristers Hall, the first sentence on the building website reads: “Offering safe, comfortable apartments for Mercer Law School students with long-term leases and incredible incentives.” Note that second word; methinks the building doth protest too much.

This brings us to the broader issue of law school security, which the tragic killing of Lauren Giddings has raised. In the wake of her death, one Macon-based source wrote to us: “Mercer Law needs to step it up if they are going to have kids killed at Barristers Hall.”

In defense of the school, Mercer Law has stepped it up, announcing a slew of new campus security measures. From a recent memo issued by Dean Gary Simson (reprinted in full below):

The law building is open to Mercer Law students on Monday-Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon-11 p.m. However, an exception will be made each semester for the period of time from the day after the last day of classes through (and including) the day before the last day of final exams. During this period of time, the building closing time for students will be extended by three hours beyond the usual closing time.

In other words, Mercer Law students will not have 24-hour access to the law school building, like law students at most other law schools.

So has the law school gone too far? One current Mercer law student contacted us and suggested that the new security policies might be “overzealous,” adding that “students have been grumbling very loudly on Facebook, wondering if the school will cut tuition in half because they only have access to the building for half a day.”

(I wouldn’t count on it. Regular readers of Above the Law know that law school administrators and student tuition dollars are not easily parted.)

“It seems a bit silly” to complain this much, added our source, “but I can understand why the law review and moot court/mock trial people are upset.” As many Above the Law readers know, in order to fulfill the requirements of law journal or moot court participation, it’s often necessary to have after-hours access to the law school (especially the library).

On the other hand, the concern of law school administrators is understandable. At this point, they’d rather err on the side of too much security than too little. As Jane Genova wrote at Law and More:

The open nature of campus life and its nearby areas has made the university vulnerable to incidents of violence, even murders. After all, there are lots of relatively young people around. Many of them tend to be trusting, whether they live in dorms on campus or off-campus in private apartments not associated with the university. [W]hen a tragedy occurs, it tends to become associated with the university….

[C]ampus safety is the issue in university life. Notre Dame learned that when there was an alleged sexual assault, followed by the alleged victim’s suicide. The institution will have a hard and long time recovering from that hit to its brand identity.

Genova’s concerns were echoed by a law professor who wrote to us here at Above the Law in the wake of Lauren Giddings’s death:

After Virginia Tech, I yapped for a couple years to get interior locks for our classroom doors, and [the administration] got the job done.

Simple stuff can save lives, but the bucks go to athletics and amenities. People have to speak up.

Thanks for raising this issue, ATL.

You’re most welcome. Striking the proper balance between security and freedom is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Returning to Stephen McDaniel and Lauren Giddings, we will of course keep you posted about further developments in this prosecution. Now that a murder charge has been filed, it will be interesting to see if mainstream media outlets, especially those beyond the Macon area, pick up on the case.

One reader suggests that fiery former prosecutrix Nancy Grace might get involved: “Nancy Grace is a Mercer Law grad, [so you might] get another epic story like Casey Anthony. Maybe she will call him ‘ChainMailMan’?”

It’s certainly a possibility. Nancy Grace is sometimes criticized for being an overzealous shrew who exploits suffering for ratings. But sometimes the attention she focuses on a case can yield results and new information. If she does turn her gaze to the awful killing of Lauren Giddings, let’s hope that it’s for the good, bringing light rather than heat to a truly tragic situation.

UPDATE (8:15 PM): It looks like Nancy Grace is already on the case.

UPDATE (8:30 PM): In case you haven’t seen it already, check out this video interview with a distraught Stephen McDaniel. It was conducted on June 30, the day Lauren Giddings’s body was found. What are your thoughts on his demeanor and his remarks?

UPDATE (8/4/11, 7:45 PM): Actually, here is a better video clip (brought to our attention by readers). Note McDaniel’s reaction when he is told about the recovery of a body.

P.S. Commenters: please be sensitive and respectful, given the subject of this story. Readers who might be offended: please do not read the comments, which are hidden for your protection. Thanks.

Police Chief: Evidence Led to McDaniel []
Stephen McDaniel Charged with the murder of Lauren Giddings []
McDaniel charged with murder in Lauren Giddings’ slaying [Macon Telegraph]
Mercer Law School: Security issues are everything [Law and More]
Police treating remains as those of Mercer law grad Lauren Giddings [Georgia Daily News]
Lauren Giddings’ Investigation Intensifies []
Master key found in apartment of Giddings’ neighbor [Macon Telegraph]
Mom asked McDaniel if relationship with Giddings was possible [Macon Telegraph]

Earlier: Breaking: Stephen McDaniel Charged With Murder of Lauren Giddings
An Update On a Mercer Law Student’s Untimely Death
Grisly Scene Developing At Mercer Law School


Dear Students,

I am writing to let you know of certain changes in building hours that go into effect starting tomorrow, August 1. Those changes and others that I will describe below are designed to help provide you with an extra measure of assurance that the law school is a place where you can study, attend classes, engage in extracurricular activities, and more without serious concern about the security of your person and property.

Not surprisingly, although Lauren Giddings’s terrible death occurred away from the law school and bore no logical relation to the level of security in the law school building or on the law school grounds, it prompted a number of students to write to me and other members of the administration urging us to think carefully about whether the law school is providing as much security as it should. I took those student expressions of concerns very seriously. Within a week of the discovery of Lauren’s death, I had had various meetings and conversations about law school security with members of the law school senior staff and faculty, a number of students here for summer school or recent graduates here studying for the bar, several alumni, the campus police chief and one of his officers, an experienced police officer for the city, and the Mercer president and members of his administration.

I came away from those various discussions strongly persuaded that my impression prior to Lauren’s death of security at the law school was, and remains, accurate: the law school is a fundamentally safe place. I also came away from those discussions, however, with the view that a number of things could reasonably be done to provide the students and other members of the law school community with a higher level of security and a greater sense of security. Raising the level of security always carries with it the risks of limiting unnecessarily the degree of personal freedom and fostering a fearful and unhealthy mindset. I believe that the following measures that we are putting in place — most of which had been discussed at times in the past — strike a good balance between the competing considerations:

1. The law library will be open for use by the general public on Monday-Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and on Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It will be closed to the general public on weekends. The front door of the law school will be unlocked only during hours when the law library is open to the general public.

2. The law building is open to Mercer Law students on Monday-Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon-11 p.m. However, an exception will be made each semester for the period of time from the day after the last day of classes through (and including) the day before the last day of final exams. During this period of time, the building closing time for students will be extended by three hours beyond the usual closing time. Mercer Law students’ Bear Cards will be set to provide access to the building during all hours when the building is open to students.

3. A campus police officer will walk through the building (1) on Monday-Friday shortly after 6:00 p.m. to ensure that members of the general public are out of the building and (2) on Sunday-Thursday shortly after 11:00 p.m. and Friday-Saturday shortly after 6 p.m. to ensure that Mercer Law students are out of building.

4. The law school administration will hire student aides to be available at a desk in the foyer from dusk until the building closing time to walk in pairs with any student leaving the building who requests company in walking to his/her car or to his/her apartment (if the apartment is within a few blocks).

5. During hours when the library is open to the general public and the front door is unlocked, a student hired by the law school administration will sit at a desk in the foyer, with a sign stating that any person entering the building who is not a member of the law school’s student body, faculty, or staff must register at the desk.

6. Security cameras will be installed in the coming weeks at appropriate places inside and outside the building.

7. The lighting outside the building soon will be enhanced in several locations.

8. All doors to exit the building now have a sign stating the door should not be propped open at any time.

I look forward to seeing all of you at the law school soon.

Best wishes,
Gary Simson

Gary J. Simson
Dean and Macon Chair in Law
Mercer University
School of Law
1021 Georgia Ave.
Macon, GA 31207

(hidden for your protection)

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