Morse admits slapping, dragging stepdaughter

Cross-examination continues in waterboarding trial
February 11, 2014

A former pediatrician accused of waterboarding his stepdaughter admitted under cross examination that he had slapped the child more than once and that she had been roughly handled the night before she ran away.

It was the child's running away that led to an 18-month investigation and to the endangering and assault charges Morse faces.

Morse's earlier testimony Feb. 10 offered no details of the incident that led to his arrest.

But under questioning by Deputy Attorney General Melanie Withers, Morse acknowledged he had grabbed the girl by her ankle when he pulled her out of the car, matching the accounts provided by the victim and her mother in earlier testimony.

He said he also tried to put his arm under the child's neck. It was the victim's own struggling that resulted in her being dropped onto the gravel driveway, Morse said.

Morse testified he should have picked up the girl, but he instead continued to drag her five or 10 feet. He then picked her up and carried her up four concrete steps leading into the house, he said.

Testimony, in its second week, continues Tuesday afternoon in Sussex County Superior Court. The case could go to the jury this week.

Questioned by his own attorney, Morse on Monday offered an account of his actions that is completely different from the abuse that had been described by his stepdaughter and her mother.

In testimony Feb. 10, Melvin Morse portrayed himself as a caring, even nurturing parent who treated his stepdaughter and his younger biological daughter with an even hand. He flat-out denied the most explosive accusation against him, a punishment his now 12-year-old stepdaughter testified he had called waterboarding.

Morse and the child's mother, Pauline Morse, were charged in August 2012 with endangering the lives of their children after the stepdaughter ran away from home.

Morse described his stepdaughter as difficult and testified she suffers from post traumatic stress disorder stemming from sexual molestation when she was 7 at the hands of an older half-sister. As his testimony began, his voice cracked from nervousness, prompting an apology to the jury.

“We put her into counseling,” Morse said, blaming a marked change in her behavior on the molestation and adding “... she grew angry with us for not protecting her.”

“Mostly it was oppositional things,” Morse testified. “She wouldn't do her homework. She was frightened at night. She became a night wanderer, which they told us was typical of PSTD. She shut down. If I told her to do chores, she would say OK and then not do them.”

In her wandering at night, she would sometimes go into the laundry room where her mother kept scissors and other sewing tools and cut up things up, he said.

Chastened to shorten his answers by defense co-counsel Kevin Tray, who led the questioning, Morse tried to be brief but often failed. Morse said his stepdaughter did not like having her hair washed. He said Pauline had tried but failed to get the child to cooperate.

Frustrated, he said, Pauline turned the task over to him. He testified he didn't want to further traumatize his stepdaughter by being in the room during her bath, so he took over only after she had bathed and was dressed. He said he tried holding her head under the bathroom faucet, but it didn't work.

He said he moved to the kitchen sink because it was deeper and the faucet has a hose attachment so he could more easily direct the water. He said he tried to wash his stepdaughter's hair four or five times but ultimately gave up when she continued to scream and struggle. The term waterboarding may have come up, he said, suggesting he said something like, “I'm washing your hair, I'm not waterboarding you.'”

Eventually, Pauline bought some perfumed shampoos, and the child settled down, he said.

Morse, an expert in near-death experiences, has written best-selling books on the topic. He married Pauline Morse in 2004 but their marriage was dissolved in 2008 when it was discovered that Pauline had failed to divorce a previous husband. Pauline's charges have since been reduced; she testified for the prosecution, corroborating her daughter's version of events.

Cross examination continues Tuesday, Feb. 11.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated and slightly changed to reflect morning testimony on Tuesday, Feb. 11.