The trial of a man accused of waterboarding his adopted daughter until she couldn’t breathe began this week in Superior Court.
Melvin Morse, 60, and his wife Pauline, 41, were arrested in August 2012 and charged with endangering the lives of their children after their 11-year-old daughter told police Morse abused her.
In opening arguments, Deputy Attorney General Melanie Withers said the daughter, now 12, would testify that on July 12, 2012, Morse forced her to stay in the family’s car, parked outside of their home on Route 9 for several hours.
After dark, Morse grabbed the girl by her ankle and dragged her across a gravel driveway into the house, Withers said.
Withers said on more than one occasion, Morse held the girl’s head face-up under a running faucet. Morse himself called it waterboarding, she said.
“She could not breathe,” Withers told the jury. “Sometimes, she would even go limp just to make him think he’d gone too far and stop.”
Withers said Morse was extremely controlling. Sometimes, he would starve his daughter, she said; other times, he would force feed her until she vomited.
At times, Morse would not allow her to use the bathroom, and the young girl would eventually soil herself, Withers said.
“The child ultimately saved herself,” she said.
On July 13, 2012, the girl awoke before the rest of her family, wrote a goodbye note, packed two small bags and rode her bike to a friend’s house, she said. The friend’s mother called the police.
All of the allegations involve only the 12-year-old, Withers said. The Morse’s younger daughter “was considered the golden child,” Withers said; she was given toys and sent to a private school, and she was never physically harmed.
Withers also said Pauline, the biological mother of both daughters, would testify she witnessed the abuse.
In May, Pauline avoided a felony charge by pleading guilty to three misdemeanors and agreeing to testify as a witness for the state.
Defense attorney Joe Hurley said the Department of Family Services is pressuring Pauline to testify against Morse in exchange for visitation rights and possibly regaining custody of her children. “DFS controls her and her children,” he said. “That’s a lot of pressure on her.”
Pauline had been married previously and had two daughters with different fathers before she met Morse in 2004 in Washington state, Hurley said. Pauline was living with the victim’s father when she and Morse met.
Hurley said Pauline filed a false assault charge against the girl’s father to get rid of him and be with Morse.
Later in 2004, Morse and Pauline were married, but they had to dissolve the marriage in 2008 because Pauline had never divorced her previous husband, Hurley said.
Pauline and Morse continued to tell people they were married and that the victim was Morse’s biological daughter, both attorneys said.
Hurley said Pauline would lie during her testimony. If Morse is in jail, she has a better chance of seeing her children, he said.
“Don’t form conclusions until you hear the evidence,” Hurley said.
Hurley said the jury would also hear inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s statements.
In December 2008, the girl went to school and claimed Morse had slapped her and knocked her to the floor, Hurley said. The Department of Family Services investigated the girl’s claim, he said. “They look at her; there’s no marks,” he said.
Hurley said she later told her therapist she lied about being slapped by Morse.
In subsequent interviews, the girl told family services officials and officials from the Child Advocacy Center that everything was fine at home, Hurley said.
Hurley said the 12-year-old girl was forced out of the car July 12, 2012, and she suffered some minor injuries.
Morse did not waterboard the girl, Hurley said. Morse only washed her hair, and she hated it, he said.
“This case is going to have strange dimensions,” Hurley said. “Please don’t jump the gun.”
Police video shows defendant distraught
Harbeson resident Elizabeth Riedel told the court she remembers a knock on the door the morning of July 13, 2012. When she opened the door, she saw a disheveled little girl standing on her doorstep with a backpack, she said.
“Her hair was a mess,” Riedel said. “She looked scared.”
Riedel, the first witness to take the stand for the prosecution, said the girl told her she rode the bus with her daughter. “She ended up at my house because she didn’t want to go home,” she said.
Riedel testified the girl’s shoes and pants were soaked, so Riedel gave her fresh clothes to change into. “She had an odor to her,” she said.
Riedel testified she called her friend, Bobbi Jo Dean, the girl’s bus driver, to come to the house.
Dean also took the stand and testified she sat with the girl until police arrived. “You could tell she was distressed and upset,” Dean said. “I saw some marks on her legs.”
Cpl. Bryon Haupt testified he was dispatched to Riedel’s home on Harbeson Road. When he entered the house, he saw a little girl sitting on a couch, he said. “She appeared to be wet,” he said. “And dirty.”
Haupt said she looked nervous when he entered the house, and stood up as if she might run or hide. He said he took a knee and removed his hat to speak to her.
“I noticed bruising on her one ankle,” Haupt said. “She showed me scratches on her back as well.”
Haupt said he drove the girl to Beebe Healthcare and notified the Department of Family Services. He said he had to roll the windows down during the car ride because of the smell coming from the girl.
Haupt testified he interviewed Morse later that day. The jury was shown video footage of the interview, which showed Morse speaking softly and appearing confused about the situation. He asked if his daughter was OK.
“Yeah,” Haupt said.
Morse breathed a heavy sigh.
Haupt asked Morse what happened the day before.
Morse said the family had returned from a trip to Montreal. They picked up dinner at Grotto Pizza, and when they arrived at their home on Route 9, the girl refused to help unload the car, Morse said. “Then, she wouldn’t get out of the car,” he said.
In choppy, unfinished sentences, Morse told Haupt that after dark the girl was still outside, and he returned to the car to carry her into the house. “She was kicking and screaming,” he said. “And I dropped her, that’s true.”
Morse said he took the girl to her room and told her she had to go to bed. “Then, she said I hit her so hard she couldn’t see,” Morse said. “I said … ‘I did not hit you.’”
Morse said he told her, “Tomorrow, you’re going to be punished like you’ve never been punished.”
Morse said he threatened to spank the girl and take her Harry Potter books away, but he never actually hit her.
“That’s not the story I’m getting from her,” Haupt said. “What’s a reasonable explanation for all those bruises and scratches?”
Morse said he did not know how the girl was scratched. “I probably dragged her,” he said. “I’m sure I grabbed her by the leg and pulled her in."
Morse said, “I don’t hit her or bruise her. Certainly, when I carried her into the house, she fell.”
Morse then said he did not drag the girl from the car to the house.
He also said he has a good relationship with the girl. “Most of this is a problem between her and my wife because she will not obey Pauline,” he said.
Morse continued to talk at Haupt as the officer was leaving the interview room. After he left, Morse shook his head, then leaned forward and rested his head in his hands.
Nurse documents injuries
Cheri Will, a forensic nurse at Beebe Healthcare, testified she examined the girl and took pictures of her injuries, which were passed around the jury box.
The photographs showed bruises on the girl’s feet, ankles and on the back of her legs. There were also pictures of the girl’s back, which was scraped and bruised, and her spine was pronounced.
Pictures of the girl’s hands showed broken blood vessels on her palms and at the bottom of her nail beds.
Will said the girl was, “very pale, very skinny, dark circles under her eyes and various areas of injury.”
Will said the girl told her she had been punished and left in the car the night before. She said she was later dragged out of the car over a stone driveway. “She said when she was being dragged she was trying to lift her head up so her head wouldn’t bang,” Will testified. “She was very fearful of returning home.”
Hurley objected several times during witness testimony and scrutinized each photograph and document carefully before allowing it to be entered as evidence.
Morse sat at the defense table with Hurley and attorney Kevin Tray. His hair, which was brown in the police video from 2012, is now completely white.
Morse reacted to each testimony - shaking his head in disagreement or nodding in approval, frequently pursing his lips and furrowing his brow.
Of the 16 people in the jury box - 12 jurors and four alternates - 12 were women.
Testimony continued Thursday, Jan. 30.