GEORGETOWN, Del. (AP) — A woman testified Thursday that she didn't believe her longtime companion, who was a pediatrician, was washing her daughter's hair when she saw him hold the girl's head under a kitchen sink faucet.
The girl has accused Melvin Morse, 60, of waterboarding her. He is on trial in Delaware on endangerment and assault charges.
Pauline Morse said on the stand Thursday that she walked into the kitchen one time and surprised Melvin Morse while he had the girl's head under the faucet. She said Morse jumped and quickly released the girl, who was coughing and shaking.
Pauline Morse, 41, told jurors that she didn't believe he was washing the girl's hair.
"He called it washing her hair, but I knew it wasn't washing her hair because there was no soap or anything," said Pauline Morse, who pleaded guilty last year to misdemeanor child endangerment charges and agreed to testify against Melvin Morse.
The pediatrician, whose medical license was suspended after his arrest, 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.
Morse has denied police claims that he may have been experimenting on the girl, now 12. Waterboarding simulates drowning and has been used in the past by U.S. interrogators on terror suspects. Many critics call it torture.
Pauline Morse testified that Melvin Morse used "hair washing" as a threat or punishment. Prosecutors claim the waterboarding took place over at least three years, but under cross-examination, Pauline Morse said she saw only the one time in the kitchen and admitted that the girl didn't like having her hair washed. She said she would often see the girl wet afterward, but she became flustered when defense attorney Joseph Hurley suggested she didn't really know what was going on.
"You don't know, do you?" Hurley asked Pauline Morse, who simply shrugged her shoulders in response.
The woman also said she never saw Melvin Morse trying to suffocate her daughter, as the girl has claimed, by putting his hand over her nose and mouth.
"She told me once and I didn't believe it," she said.
Hurley also got Pauline Morse to acknowledge that she has lied to authorities several times over the years about her relationships with Morse and other men, including falsely accusing one of abuse.
Jurors also were shown text messages from Pauline Morse and statements she gave to investigators contradicting her assertions that she was afraid to confront Melvin Morse. And she testified that she and Morse fought often.
"How are we to know when you're telling the truth and when you're not?" Hurley asked her.
"I don't know," replied Pauline, who said she did not have a close relationship with the girl during the time of the alleged waterboarding.
"I felt distant, ... because Melvin was the main disciplinarian and I ignored a lot of things that were going on. So I just kind of avoided her... I had to ignore my maternal instinct."
But text messages Pauline sent to Melvin Morse in 2010 indicate that she, too, was involved in disciplining the child.
"I feel we should not even acknowledge her presence as long as we can't (sic)," Pauline wrote in one message.
Authorities say her daughter suffered terrible abuse, including being waterboarded, deprived of food, forced to stand with arms outstretched for hours at a time, and confined to her room, where she had to use her toy box or closet as a toilet. Still, Pauline Morse admitted that she didn't tell anybody, including her best friend, police, or family service investigators.
"A lot of times I would just go up in my room and ignore the whole thing," she said under prosecution questioning, adding that she was afraid of "undermining" Melvin Morse.
The allegations of waterboarding surfaced after the girl ran away from home in July 2012, the morning after Morse was accused of grabbing her by the ankle and dragged her across a gravel driveway into the home, where she was spanked and warned of worse punishment the next day.
When investigators questioned the girl, then 11, she told them about what she called waterboarding.
Pauline Morse, when questioned by authorities, described the girl as "defiant," and "a headache," according to her cross-examination Thursday.
But she acknowledged that her motivations for testifying against Melvin Morse include hoping to be reunited with the girl and her younger sister, who are now in foster care, and because she wants him "out of our life."
If convicted on each of four felony counts of reckless endangering, Melvin Morse could face up to 20 years in prison, but the presumptive sentence for each count is up to 15 months in prison. He faces up to a year in prison for each of five misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and up to a year on one misdemeanor assault charge.
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