Mother testifies in waterboarding trial

Pauline Morse backs up victim's account of punishments
February 10, 2014
Melvin Morse SOURCE FILE

The one-time wife of former pediatrician Melvin Morse testified she walked into the kitchen as Morse held his stepdaughter's head in the sink under running water while the child coughed and struggled.

Pauline Morse also corroborated other punishments the girl had described in earlier testimony, including Morse force-feeding her until she vomited.

Defendant Melvin Morse could take the stand Monday, Feb. 10, as the defense begins its case in the second week of trial in Sussex County Superior Court. Melvin Morse, 60, and Pauline, 41, were both changed with endangering the lives of their children in August 2012 after the child ran away from home and sought refuge at a classmate's home.

Pauline Morse testified she entered the kitchen unexpectedly and saw Morse holding the girl's face under water. Pauline called what she saw waterboarding.

“Of course he immediately put her down. I asked what he was doing. He didn't have anything to say, she said. "Her clothes were wet.”

“Why call it 'waterboarding'?” asked Deputy Attorney General Melanie Withers.

Pauline explained Melvin would sometimes call it “waterboarding,” and in the month before his arrest had used the euphemism “washing her hair” for the punishment. She added that there were times she suspected it was going on but preferred not to check.

Dr. Virginia Greenbaum, medical director at the Child Care Center of Georgia in Atlanta, testified last week that both forms of suffocation described in testimony - holding a child's head under water and holding her mouth closed while pinching her nose - were dangerous and life-threatening.

Pauline Morse repeated many incidents described by her daughter in earlier testimony, including that she was often required to sit in her room for hours without toys or bathroom breaks, forcing her to use the closet or toy chest as a toilet; stand against the wall with arms outstretched for long periods; and lean with her head against the wall, arms behind her back. She said these were common punishments that occurred most days. She also observed Morse meting out other punishments she didn't feel right about.

“He would kick her,” Pauline said. “I saw him punch her once. She would cry out.”

Dinnertime was especially dangerous for the 12-year-old. If she didn't finish her dinner, Morse would make her sit at the table until he allowed her to leave.

Pauline testified that at least one time her daughter wet herself while awaiting permission to leave the table. Melvin responded by shaming her and making her clean it up.

When Melvin and his stepdaughter clashed several nights in a row over her not finishing her meals, Pauline testified she cautiously ventured that the girl seemed to be losing weight, hoping it would make Melvin ease up on her.

Instead he force-fed her, Pauline testified. “He would shove it in her mouth,” she said. “Once it was bits of steak; one time it was brussels sprouts. That's the day she threw up.”

Pauline testified that by far the most common punishments were time-outs. On the weekend these could restrict her to her room for the whole day. “It seemed he would send her to her room and forget about her,” Pauline testified.

“Did you go in and check on her? Asked Withers.

“No,” said Pauline.

“Did you send up food?”

“Not usually.”

Pauline Morse testified that although she heard her daughter struggling and screaming during punishments, she failed to intervene. She said she would sometimes try to stop the punishments by suggesting the family go out or saying the child's clothes were dirty and needed to be washed.

The mother testified that Morse also gave the girl Straterra, a prescription anti-depressant, which Pauline said he received as samples at the office where he worked part-time as a pediatrician.

The witness said this occurred only for about three months and that the pills were given to her inconsistently. She testified Morse said the medications would make her daughter behave better.

Pauline said Morse also shamed her daughter. While she was washing dishes - one of the girl's daily chores - he would dump things on her head, such as pickle juice or the contents of the sink strainer. She described his tone as often “mean, vicious, bullying.”

Pauline testified that Morse told her he could get her daughter to do anything he wanted. She said proving that to her may have been his motive for several pictures entered into evidence during the girl's prior testimony. One showed her making an obscene gesture; another showed her standing with the word “Shame” attached to the front of her T-shirt.

Pauline also acknowledged that she failed to help her daughter. “I would be dismissive and say you really have to quit doing those things,” she testified. Other times her advice was to brush it off.

Pauline testified that every time she and Melvin argued over the punishments, he would win. If she challenged anything about his discipline, he would insist that Pauline was undermining him, and she decided that defending her daughter seemed to anger him and worsen the girl's punishment.

Change in attitude

Defense attorneys said earlier in the trial that Pauline and Melvin married in 2004, but the marriage was dissolved in 2008 because Pauline had never divorced her previous husband.

Pauline said at first, Melvin treated his stepdaughter as his own; until only a few months ago, she said, the girl had not been told that Melvin Morse was her stepfather.

It was about the time his own daughter was born, when his stepdaughter was about 4 or 5, that Melvin's behavior began to change. “It seemed he began to play favorites,” she said, and didn't seem to even want his stepdaughter around.

“At that point you became concerned with their interaction?” asked Withers.

“Yes,” said the mother of both children, “but it always ended up that I was wrong.”

Not only did punishments get harsher; the stepdaughter went with her parents on fewer trips, had less play time (none that her mother could remember) and attended public school while her sibling went to private school.

“We couldn't afford to send them both to private school, so I kind of went along with what he wanted,” Pauline said.

Last day before victim left home

Pauline also corroborated key points of her daughter's version of the events of July 14, 2012, the day before she ran away, precipitating the couple's arrest. The girl testified previously that while the family was at Grotto Pizza, Melvin had become angry with her and told her to go wait in the car.

Arriving home, Pauline testified that Melvin had indeed told her to stay in the car. “We sat in the house and ate our pizza, and he seemed to forget about her,” Pauline testified. “It began to get dark, and I said, 'Shouldn't we get her?' and he said 'No, she'll come in when she wants to.'”

Pauline said as bedtime neared, Melvin returned to the car, grabbed the girl by the ankle and dragged her across a gravel driveway, up four concrete steps and into the kitchen. He dumped her on her bed and began spanking her.

Pauline said she didn't witness the bedroom spanking but heard her daughter's cries.

Pauline also testified it was Melvin's job to get the girl up and off to school. The girl had earlier testified he would sometimes awaken her with a glass of water in the face. Pauline said she didn't see that happen, but said, “I would hear them struggling a lot and then I heard what sounded like her being dragged down the stairs.”

“Did you get up?” asked Withers.

“No. I stayed in the room. I didn't want to see,” said Pauline.

Attorney suggests mom stalling for time

The mother's testimony drew more observers than had been attending the trial to date. It also riveted the jury, especially during Hurley's aggressive cross-examination.

Early in his questioning, Hurley became annoyed with the witness for frequently asking him to repeat questions. She would often ask him to repeat a question by saying, "I'm sorry?”

“Don't be sorry," Hurley eventually scolded.

He later explained his frustration. “You sat all morning under questioning by the prosecution without a single problem hearing. Now you've asked me to repeat five questions in a row. I don't know if you are stalling for time, or what.”

Later, when Deputy Attorney General Melanie Withers was again allowed to question the witness, Pauline Morse revealed that she was suffering from a hearing loss that had been diagnosed and treated with a hearing aid only about two weeks earlier. She said she was currently wearing the device.

Under questioning by Withers, Pauline Morse said before she Melvin split up, around the time of their arrest in 2012, he was working part time as a pediatrician.

Melvin Morse is also an expert in near-death experiences and the author of best-selling books about his research on the experiences of children who had been revived after nearly dying.

Withers asked how he was able to support the whole family working only part time.

Pauline explained that he had been diagnosed with hepatitis C and received $7,000 a month in disability payments. She said if he worked more than part time, it might jeopardize his claim.

Asked what his symptoms were, Pauline replied, “He had a lot of symptoms I couldn't see, but otherwise he had brain fog, stomach pain, and he was tired.”

Mother faces reduced charges

Withers established early on that after Pauline had been arrested and charged with felony crimes that could have put her in prison for more than 20 years, she signed a plea agreement reducing her charges and limiting her sentence to probation.

Later, under questioning by Hurley, Pauline acknowledged that it was she who initiated the deal.

Under questioning, she added that shortly after reaching an agreement with prosecutors, her charges were reduced to misdemeanors, and she was sentenced to probation. She said her supervised visitation was also doubled to two times a week.

The Family Court trial, which will determine if she will receive custody or visitation, has been put on hold pending the outcome of Morse's trial.

Last week's testimony ended with a brief appearance on the stand by the girl's younger sibling, a 7-year-old. Rail thin and self-assured, she appeared completely unaffected by her austere surroundings or Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes, who loomed above her. Stokes was stern but friendly. The child strode purposefully to the witness chair before almost disappearing behind a small desk. Her answers were short, responsive and confident.

The only time she sounded like a little girl was when, after being questioned by Withers on the disparity in gifts, attention, toys and travel between the sisters, she said, “Yeah, I'm spoiled.” She almost giggled.

At one point during cross-examination, Hurley asked the girl if she could identify the people at the defense table. She said no to Hurley's co-counsel, and when defendant Morse stood expectantly and smiled, she failed to identify him.

Hurley asked his client to stand straighter, but she still couldn't identify him.

It has been about 18 months since she last saw her father, whose brown hair has gone white since his arrest.

Attorneys said the trial could go to the jury by Wednesday, Feb. 12.

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