Jury finds Morse guilty in waterboarding case

After one day of deliberation, verdict is returned
February 14, 2014
Melvin Morse SOURCE FILE

A jury of nine women and three men has returned a guilty verdict in the trial of former pediatrician Melvin Morse, accused of waterboarding and other abuse of his stepdaughter.

The child, now 12, ran away from home one day after Morse pulled her out of the family car and dragged her across a gravel driveway. That incident triggered an 18-month investigation and charges against Morse and his companion Pauline Morse, but her charges were reduced when she agreed to testify for the prosecution.

The case in Sussex County Superior Court revolved around two completely different accounts of family life: the girl described constant criticism and punishment at the hands of her stepfather, while Morse painted himself as a caring and attentive parent.

After testimony concluded, defense attorney Kevin Tray began a spirited closing argument aimed at discrediting the testimony of the 12-year-old victim. Tray said the girl had been interviewed about the waterboarding incidents five times, but it was only one day before trial that she said her stepfather had said “Die. Die.”

About 10 minutes into his argument, Tray suddenly fell ill, and a recess was called. While bailiffs attended to Tray, Melvin whispered to unidentified spectators: “He's been working 18-hour days.”

Picking up for Tray, defense attorney Joseph Hurley boiled the prosecution's case down to the credibility of two witnesses: Pauline and the 12-year-old victim, dismissing the testimony of the victim's 7-year-old half sister.

Hurley said the younger child is not a supporting witness at all, adding, “She couldn't even identify her father,” whom she failed to recognize in the courtroom. It has been about 18 months since she saw her father, and his appearance has changed markedly.

Hurley was even more dismissive of Pauline. “We know she has a bad memory,” he said, noting Pauline had forgotten she was still married to a man in Washington state when she married Morse, and she had to dissolve her Delaware marriage because of it. “She's a huge black hole of credibility,” he summarized.

According to the state, home life for Morse's stepdaughter was “Auschwitz on steroids,” Hurley said, “except for the executions.” He then showed clips of recorded positive comments the girl had made to child service workers about her home life and her father.

“It's on her credibility that the whole case stands or falls,” he said.

Prosecutor: A case of personalities

Deputy Attorney General Melanie Withers offered equally dramatic closing arguments for the prosecution.

She told the jury that Pauline was not an ideal witness, but she was an important part of what was going on in the Morse household.

“This case is about personalities,” said Withers. “At its heart it was about a family and how they interacted with each other in the privacy of their home. So it was necessary to hear from Pauline.

"If we had not heard from Pauline, we would be missing an important part of the story.”

She said Melvin Morse had two personae, one public and one private. His public face was that of a concerned parent, taking his stepdaughter to therapists and parenting advisers to help her recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. Privately, she said, he was a control freak who wanted to completely dominate her.

As a result, he restricted her movement in the house, excessively disciplined her, lectured her for hours on end - recording some - and shamed her with degrading poses and even one which featured her with a sign that said “shame.” Withers showed pictures and clips of the girl when she was obviously distressed, including a video of her during one of her stepfather's lectures.

Withers said Morse's voluminous correspondence with the school was designed to control the school's reaction to statements the girl may have made at school. Morse made sure school officials knew of his expertise in child development, that the girl was seeing outside therapists, and that she had PTSD, all to explain away signs of possible statements could have made about her home life or signs of abuse, Withers said.

“Melvin had strong opinions and a forceful personality,” Withers said. “He was lord and master in his home.” That is why the girl spent so much time in her room, Withers said.

She quoted an interview with the 7-year-old in which she said, “I only get in trouble for the big stuff; my sister gets in trouble for the big stuff and the little stuff.”

She finally ticked off each of the charges against Morse and described the allegation it stemmed from.

“Find the defendant guilty on all counts as charged,” she said.

Tray returned to the courtroom without explanation about 6 p.m., Feb. 12, after the the jury had been dismissed for the day.