Crime, Deaths, Education / Schools, Law Schools, Murder, Video games, Violence, Weirdness

In Defense of Stephen McDaniel: A Testimonial From A Friend

We’ve aimed for even-handedness in our coverage of Stephen M. McDaniel, the 25-year-old Mercer Law School alumnus accused of killing his neighbor and classmate, Lauren Giddings. We’ve written about the lurid allegations against him, and we’ve shared with you the reminiscences of a former roommate who found McDaniel a bit creepy. But we’ve also raised the possibility that some of the evidence against him might be fake, and we’ve even discussed whether perhaps McDaniel has been framed for the Giddings murder.

In our continuing quest to tell both sides of this story, today we bring you supportive words from a college classmate and friend of Stephen McDaniel. This individual believes that McDaniel is being treated unfairly in the court of public opinion — and he’d like to set the record straight….

We’ll refer to this individual, who did not want his name to be used, as “FoM” (short for “Friend of McDaniel”). He came forward after reading this account from McDaniel’s junior-year college roommate.

“I must say that I have no knowledge of what Stephen McDaniel is accused of,” said FoM. “I am simply writing this because I feel as if the way he is being currently portrayed by the media is not in his best interest, and per the U.S. justice system, he is innocent until proven guilty.”

FoM and McDaniel met in 2004, when they were undergraduates together at Mercer University. They both lived on the same floor in Plunkett Hall. “Stephen, [his roommate] and I would hang out a lot,” said FoM. “We would play Halo mostly when we were not studying, and also Magic: the Gathering.”

FoM does not deny McDaniel’s… eccentricity. He noted that McDaniel “had some weird tendencies, such as wearing chain mail, growing his fingernails out, infrequent showers, and overall finding interest in things others think little of. He even collected a ball of his own hair.”

(Well, as photographs reflect, there’s certainly a lot of it!)

“I was in his room once and saw him pulling out his hair — loose strands, not literally pulling his hair out — and he then would collect those strands in a ball of hair that was rubber-banded and kept on his desk,” said FoM. “I remember telling him that that was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen.”

But as we previously noted, being weird is not a crime. And FoM echoed that view in communicating with us.

“Despite all of these eccentric behaviors, I enjoyed hanging out with Stephen because he was different, and it didn’t seem to bother me that much,” said FoM. “I felt as though I had something in common with Stephen. Our fathers were both painters and we were both somewhat lacking in the social skills department. He would help me write some of my first-year seminar papers and I would let him use my tv to play Halo or just to watch.”

McDaniel’s junior-year roommate, Matthew Garrison, suggested that Stephen McDaniel sported his trademark chain mail because he wanted to be prepared to fight off zombies. FoM offered a different explanation — one that makes McDaniel seem less paranoid (and perhaps less able to claim an insanity defense?).

“I do remember asking him about his chain-mail once,” FoM said, “and the response I received was that it was a gift from his father. I don’t recall him making any zombie statements.”

Here was the highlight of FoM’s account of Stephen McDaniel, the information with the greatest exculpatory value:

[S]omething unusual happened in 2004. Around that time, the United States was at war with Iraq and terrorists began to post videos online of them decapitating people, and other things. I remember stumbling upon a website called Ogrish which would post these videos for all to see. Nick Berg’s decapitation was one of the first videos that I remember hearing about in the news. I went to Ogrish to see if the full video was posted, and sure enough it was. And not only that video, but others. Numerous videos were posted of decapitation, execution, etc. These were made by insurgents and others such as Mexican drug cartels.

I had no interest whatsoever in viewing such macabre, gory, graphic real-life depictions of violence, but once I realized what I had discovered I felt an overwhelming desire to tell someone. I couldn’t just tell the average person because I felt like I would immediately be dismissed and thought poorly of. I finally realized that the only person I could share this information with was Stephen McDaniel.

So one day, I was in Stephen’s room and I started telling him about this website I had discovered and what was on it. I told him I would pull it up on his computer and show him — and he said that he did not want to see it. I even pulled up the website in my room one day while he was in there and began playing a video of the Nick Berg decapitation, and he simply could not watch it.

(I personally was shocked that you could watch videos of people being murdered online, and my intention was not to trivialize what was occurring by consuming it as entertainment, but to show someone that I was not making up the fact that there was online video of these events.)

I say all this because remembering this and comparing it to the current statements of those who lived with McDaniel seem to create a paradox. Would not someone who was so willing to commit violence be able to watch it (the real thing, and not Hollywood’s version)? Would not someone able to commit murder be desensitized to someone begging for their life, such that seeing this would cause little to no negative response, but possibly even some sign of enjoyment?

I regret having watched such things, because they will be with me for the rest of my life, but if a would-be murderer watched videos of people being murdered, what response would they have? Would it be one of repulsion, as was Stephen’s?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think telling the world my story might cast a different light on the accused.

Absolutely. Some commenters on prior stories have noted how unlikely it seems that a law student — a small and slight law student, like Stephen McDaniel — could commit a grisly and physically demanding crime like the murder and dismemberment of Lauren Giddings. And so many law students and lawyers are squeamish (like the McDaniel described by FoM); we went into law rather than medicine because we couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

As FoM noted, he hasn’t spoken with McDaniel in about six years. It’s certainly possible that McDaniel changed during the intervening time period — which included his time in law school, a transformative (and sometimes traumatic) experience for many individuals.

“We parted ways after I left to go to Pharmacy School in 2006,” said FoM, “and I have not spoken to him since. I hope that he is not guilty of this crime, and that if he is not, the perpetrator is apprehended.”

Earlier: Living With A Future Murder Defendant: Stephen McDaniel’s College Roommate Tells All
Has Stephen McDaniel Been Framed in the Lauren Giddings Murder?

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