GEORGETOWN, Del. (AP) — A former Delaware pediatrician accused of waterboarding his female companion's daughter by holding her face under a faucet terrorized the girl for several years and exercised total control over her, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
In opening statements in the trial of Melvin Morse, deputy attorney general Melanie Withers portrayed Morse as a brutal and domineering "lord and master" of his household, abusing the girl for years while her mother acquiesced in silence.
"The defendant controlled every single aspect of that child's life, including whether she had the right to draw breath," Withers told jurors.
Defense attorney Joseph Hurley told jurors that the girl and her mother, Pauline, have told many conflicting and false stories to authorities over the years and that the waterboarding charges are unfounded.
Hurley said Pauline Morse herself told investigators that the alleged waterboarding was nothing more than hair-washing, which the girl did not like, and that it was sometimes threatened as a form of punishment.
"There was no water on her face cutting off her breath," Hurley said.
Melvin Morse, 60, has pleaded not guilty to child endangerment and assault charges. He has specifically denied police claims that he may have been experimenting on the girl. 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.
The allegations of waterboarding came after Morse was accused of grabbing the girl by the ankle in July 2012 and, as her younger sister watched, dragging her across a gravel driveway. He was arrested on misdemeanor endangerment and assault charges and released on bail.
When the girl, then 11, was subsequently interviewed, she told investigators that Melvin Morse also had disciplined her by holding her face under a running faucet at least four times since 2009, a punishment she said he had called "waterboarding."
Withers said the alleged abuse surfaced after the girl fled her house and showed up on the doorstep of a girl with whom she rode the school bus.
Withers said the girl decided to run away the day after Morse dragged her across the driveway, threw her on her bed and spanked her, then told her she would be punished the next day like she never had been before.
"That threat is what spurred her to action. ... She feared the worst," Withers said.
In a videotaped police interview shown to jurors Tuesday afternoon, Morse denied abusing the girl but recounted how he struggled to get the recalcitrant child into the house after the family arrived home from a trip to Montreal.
"She was kicking so much at times I dropped her," Morse told an investigating officer. Morse also told the officer that the unprecedented punishment he warned of was telling the girl she would have to clean her room thoroughly, and threatening to throw away her Harry Potter books.
At the same time, Morse acknowledged that family services officials became involved with the family in 2009 when the girl said he had slapped her.
The jury also was shown photographs of the girl taken by a forensic nurse after the July incident. One photograph showed the girl, with dark shadows underneath her eyes, smiling broadly. Others showed several areas of slight bruising and abrasions on her legs, arms and back.
Hurley said the girl has been questioned repeatedly by child protection officials over the years since saying that she had been sexually molested by a female half-sibling and that she gave no indication that she was being abused by Melvin Morse.
Pauline Morse agreed last year to plead guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges and to testify against Melvin Morse. Hurley told jurors that Pauline's testimony is motivated by her desire to be reunited with her daughters, who currently remain in foster care but with whom she is allowed to have supervised visits.