Published Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 | 5:04 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 | 5:04 p.m.
GEORGETOWN, Del. (AP) — Jurors are set to begin deliberations after hearing closing arguments Wednesday in the trial of a former pediatrician accused of waterboarding his longtime companion's daughter by holding the girl's head under a faucet.
Following almost two weeks of testimony, jurors were asked by prosecutors to find Melvin Morse, 60, guilty of assault and endangerment charges. He could face more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all charges. Jury deliberations were to begin Thursday morning, unless postponed by a winter storm expected to dump several inches of snow in the mid-Atlantic region.
Prosecutor Melanie Withers began her closing argument Wednesday by saying the case was a difficult one for prosecutors because of the lack of physical evidence. She also acknowledged that Pauline Morse, the girl's mother and key prosecution witness, is "a profoundly damaged woman who had no business being a mother."
According to statements heard by jurors, the 41-year-old woman had an abusive upbringing and has been through a string of problem relationships that resulted in five children with five different men, starting when she was 18.
Withers said Melvin Morse also has serious of issues of his own. She suggested he has a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, presenting himself as a loving and caring father in public while subjecting the girl to horrific abuse at home.
"The defendant is a highly intelligent, manipulative control-freak," Withers said, adding that jurors must decide whether his claims that he was simply trying to wash the girl's hair are believable.
"Was he washing her hair, or deliberately torturing her?" she asked.
Pauline Morse and her daughter, now 12, both testified that Morse used hair-washing as a threat or punishment.
In a deal with prosecutors, Pauline Morse pleaded guilty last year to misdemeanor charges, for which she received probation, and agreed to testify against Melvin Morse. But defense attorneys pointed out several inconsistencies and lies in the testimony and statements given to authorities by both mother and daughter.
In his closing statement, defense attorney Kevin Tray reminded jurors that they must try to determine the truth, and that "credibility is king in the courtroom."
He played video excerpts previously shown in court in which the girl told authorities on two separate occasions in 2010 that a female relative had molested her on Christmas Eve 2009. The girl goes into great detail about the molestation, but admitted later that it never happened.
"What makes it so alarming is how detailed that is," Tray said. "... That is the state's witness against Melvin Morse."
Tray also argued that the girl often was prone to exaggeration, once claiming that Melvin Morse slapped her so hard that she was knocked off her feet and over a chair, even though she was left with no bruises or marks.
"It's sort of the difference between washing someone's hair and perceiving that you're being waterboarded," he said, adding that the girl's accounts of her alleged abuse have changed over time, right up to the day before she testified in court.
Tray also showed jurors a photograph of the girl in the hospital on July 13, 2012, the day she ran away from home after Morse allegedly dragged her across a gravel driveway and into the house. She said once inside, she was slapped so hard that her vision was clouded. The photograph shows the girl smiling, with no visible marks on her face.
"It's simply not credible, these exaggerations," Tray said.
After that was when the waterboarding allegations against Morse came to light. Waterboarding, as used in the past by U.S. interrogators on terror suspects, simulates drowning. Many critics call it torture.
Morse has authored several books and articles on paranormal science and near-death experiences involving children. He has appeared on shows such as "Larry King Live" and the "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to discuss his research, which also has been featured on an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" and in an article in "Rolling Stone" magazine. He has denied police claims that he may have been using waterboarding to experiment on the girl.
Melvin Morse told jurors that the girl is a talented young artist and musician, an avid reader and honor roll student, and a good child. But he also testified that she has had significant behavioral and emotional problems, which became worse after she was molested at age 5 by a female relative in 2007, and which have been the subject of years of therapy for both her and her family.
Morse acknowledged he sometimes was insensitive and rough with the girl, but he denied that he enjoyed humiliating her or causing her pain. He said the hair-washing that led to the waterboarding allegations occurred over a span of only a few weeks or months in early 2009, but the girl and her mother claim they occurred as late as 2012, a month or two before Morse was arrested.
"I believe strongly that we did a good job in a difficult situation," Morse said.
The allegations for which Morse is on trial came to light a day after he grabbed the girl in the driveway to bring her into the house. He said she was kicking so much that he dropped her a couple of times, and testified that he acted wrongly that day.
The girl ran away the next morning to the home of a classmate, whose mother called police about the sad, disheveled girl who showed up unexpectedly on her doorstep. Police talked with the girl and went to her home, where Melvin and Pauline Morse were unaware that she had fled. Melvin Morse was questioned and charged with endangerment and assault. Following subsequent interviews with the girl, authorities later filed additional charges against both Melvin and Pauline Morse.