A 12-year-old child took the stand this week and accused her stepfather of trying to suffocate her, dumping her vomit on her head, stuffing food in her mouth, forcing her to sit in her room for hours without toilet breaks, making her stand against a wall with her arms outstretched until she could no longer hold them up and a string of other affronts.
She was animated, even fidgety as she testified, sometimes smiling and twisting in the witness chair, while her accused tormentor, Melvin Morse, sat about 30 feet away at the defense table, listening without expression.
Occasionally he would whisper a comment to Joe Hurley, his lead defense attorney, who the next day would launch an aggressive and blistering questioning of the girl in an attempt to portray her as a liar.
The trial was interrupted by frequent sidebars before Sussex County Superior Court Judge Richard Stokes. Morse sat solemnly alone at the defense table during the bench gatherings. Despite the trial's high profile in the media, it has been only modestly attended. Testimony is expected to continue into next week.
In her testimony, the victim recounted in greater detail her version of events that led to her running away and ultimately to the charges against Morse, 60, and her mother Pauline, 41.
She said that during a visit to Grotto Pizza, Morse had become angry with her for putting her hands on an ice cream container at the front of the restaurant. He told her to go to the car.
Upon arriving home, Morse has said his stepdaughter refused to get out of the car; she says he told her to stay in the car. She said that sometime later, perhaps three hours, Morse returned to the car and grabbing an ankle, dragged her over an unpaved driveway and up four cement steps into the house. Morse says he carried her kicking and struggling and admits probably dropping her along the way.
Inside, “He dropped me on the bed and started hitting me,” she testified. The girl said he used an open hand, his fist and his elbow. After the spanking, she said he warned her that the next day, “there would be more.”
“More what?” asked Deputy Attorney General Melanie Withers.
“More pain,” testified the girl.
Not knowing what punishment to expect, the victim said, she decided to run away. She packed “essentials,” including applesauce, a couch cover, paper clips, a pen and two hearts. One of the hearts was black onyx, a gift from her mother, which she hoped would help her not miss her mother as much.
She also left two notes, one in the car and one on her bed.
“The letters said why I had gone and that I had not been kidnapped or taken because I didn't want my mother to worry,” she testified. It read in part: “I have decided to leave...You will never see me again. Don't worry, I will not die alone.”
Asked by Withers why she hadn't taken her little sister, she said in the past she had carried her sister near the highway in front of their house, and her mother had told her that taking her sister that close to the road wasn't a good idea.
She set off for one friend's house, but got lost and instead recognized another friend's house and went there.
“I was hoping they would adopt me into their family,” she testified. “I wasn't going to tell them where I lived so they wouldn't have any chance of sending me back.”
They didn't send her back, but they did call her school bus driver and then the police.
In her testimony, the girl said scratches on her hands and legs observed and photographed at Beebe Medical Center had come from walking alongside her bike, not from her spanking the night before. Under cross-examination by Hurley, she also admitted that most of the bruises on her back did not come from her spanking.
During his cross examination, after soliciting testimony on the girl's many specific allegations of abusive punishments, Hurley asked why, given a home filled with such scary punishments, she had not run away before? She replied in a defeated voice that she had, but she always gave up and returned home. In a more frustrated tone, she said she had also complained to friends, teachers and her principal, but no one believed her.
The girl said her treatment at the hands of her stepfather was painful, irritating and often not tied to explicit “house rules.” She testified that she often didn't know why she was being punished. On one occasion she said Morse made her get on a table where he proceeded to sarcastically mock her as “great” and “strong.” Another time he made a sign that said “shame,” taped it to her T-shirt and took a picture of her.
The victim's testimony included a long list of punishments that included dumping her own vomit over her head, followed by holding her head underwater in the bathtub, which she said her stepfather had referred to as waterboarding; requiring her to stand against a wall with arms extended or not, facing either against the wall or outward; and force feeding her when she wouldn't complete a meal.
“He would just grab a gob of food and shove it in my mouth," the girl said. She also said she had to eat out of the trash, which she explained occurred when she didn't finish a meal and was required to go into the trash, retrieve her leftovers and eat what she had failed to consume.
“One time I didn't flush the toilet, and he tried to put my head in the toilet to show me,” she testified.
Shd also said she was grounded, which involved lengthy stays in her room without bathroom breaks resulting in her using her toy chest or soiling herself. She said her door was lined with bells or closed with a tack to ensure she could not sneak out.
Still, the most life-threatening punishments were those involving suffocation, according to Dr. Virginia Greenbaum, Medical Director at the Child Care Center of Georgia, the prosecution's last witness Feb 4. Greenbaum, who reviewed the records in this case, stated that when the body senses air has been shut off it initiates survival strategies that eventually lead to the windpipe closing. When water is involved, the body would tend to gasp when air resumed, often sucking in water and stifling the lung's ability to work. Another consequence of blocking someone's air is vomiting. If, in gasping for air, vomit is sucked into the lungs they can be damaged. Infections are another hazard.
In testimony, the girl described three punishments that could be suffocating including holding her head under a faucet in either the kitchen or bathroom sink and running water onto her face.
Asked by Withers why she called this “waterboarding” she said that's what Morse had called it, telling her that it was used as punishment at prisons such as Alcatraz. She recalled two specific incidents that had resulted in its use: one time she shook a ketchup bottle but not over the table; on another occasion she had spilled milk.
Describing the experience, she said, “I couldn't breathe, and I didn't know what was happening. He brought the water down so it would go up my nose. I would kick a lot and try to scratch him.”
Asked by Withers if she ever tried to get away from him, she said, “I would run around the island in the kitchen, but he would say, 'If you run away, it will just be worse.'”
“I tried to call for my mom so she would stop dad.”
During the waterboarding she said she couldn't hear well. “Everything was muted,” she said. “I was scared because I thought I was going to die.”
Asked when this last occurred she guessed it was a couple of weeks before she had run away.
“Was your mom in the room when this was done to you?” asked Withers.
“Once,” the girl said.
“But she was in the house the other times?” Withers asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“And she stopped him?”
“No,” said the girl.
She also testified Morse would hold his hand over her mouth and pinch her nose.
On at least one occasion this caused her to wet herself, she said. Morse then made her wash her clothes in the sink before giving them to her mother. Although she couldn't say exactly how many times this occurred, she said it was more than once.
On one occasion she recalled: “He was suffocating me to get me to say 'yes' to something. I let myself go limp. I couldn't stand it anymore; you feel you are going to die.”
A third way he threatened to suffocate her was pulling a black trash bag over her head and squeezing the air out of it. “That didn't work,” she said, ”I could breathe.”
Throughout almost four hours of detailed questioning by Withers, the girl appeareded resolute. When cross examination began on Tuesday, however, she maintained her composure, but let some questions from Hurley hang in the air as if they were rhetorical. His style was aggressive and dismissive, particularly as he sought and got confirmation that the witness had lied under oath in an earlier child molestation case involving the victim's older half-sister.
Hurley asked the witness to describe an incident in 2010 when her half-sister was allowed to return to the family home for Christmas after being incarcerated for about three years for molesting the witness when she was 7. The half-sister was about 13 at the time.
Hurley asked the witness to confirm that the older half-sister had dangled the girl over the balcony by one foot, painfully pinched her in the armpit, carried a knife and threatened to kill her. The girl answered “yes” to each of these questions.
“Back in 2007 (your half sister) had done bad things to you, and you didn't want her in the house,” said Hurley. Among the claims made then was that the older step-daughter had molested the witness, and based on those claims the older girl was taken out of the house.
On the Christmas visit in 2010, the victim again accused her half-sister of molestation, and she was again removed from the house. Hurley played a recording in which the girl convincingly and in great detail described to a child services worker how she had been molested. And again, the step-daughter was removed from the home. But under questioning, the victim admitted the allegations were untrue.
Hurley then went on to ask if it was true that the witness had told her younger sibling while they were in foster care during the past 18 months that the only way they could ever go home was if Morse went to jail.
“Yes,” the girl said.
Testimony in the case is expected to continue into next week.