GEORGETOWN, Delaware (Reuters) - A well-known Delaware pediatrician force-fed his 11-year-old stepdaughter, forbade her from using the bathroom and used “waterboarding” to discipline her, a prosecutor said on Tuesday at the opening of the doctor’s trial.
Dr. Melvin Morse, a best-selling author on near-death experiences, faces charges of endangering the welfare of a child, reckless endangerment and conspiracy. He was arrested in 2012 after the girl, then 11, told authorities she had been waterboarded on four occasions.
Morse, 60, held the girl face-up under a running kitchen faucet until she was unable to breathe and “called it waterboarding,” the prosecutor, Melanie Withers, told jurors.
Morse’s defense lawyer, Joe Hurley, responded that his client was joking when he used the term “waterboarding” and that the incidents had been attempts to wash the girl’s hair, an activity she hated.
Furthermore, Hurley said the girl, the daughter of Morse’s now-estranged wife, had a long history of lying to adults, including counselors.
Waterboarding, typically associated with the interrogation of terrorism suspects, involves forcibly holding a cloth over a person’s face and flooding it with water to simulate drowning.
Morse shook his head as Withers told the jury at Sussex County Superior Court about what she described as his “bizarre, hostile” treatment of the girl.
Withers said the abuse included force-feeding her until she vomited, forbidding her from using the bathroom until she soiled herself, waking her up for school by throwing cold water on her face and dragging her down steps.
Police were summoned to the family home in Georgetown, Delaware, in July after the girl ran away to the home of a neighbor. A police statement said she had refused to get out of the family car and that Morse dragged her out by the ankles over a gravel driveway.
Withers said in court on Tuesday that Morse had actually ordered the child to remain in a hot car outside the family’s home for more than five hours before he “dragged her by her foot across the driveway” and told her that “tomorrow, she would be punished like she had never been punished before.”
The girl went to the home of a classmate the next morning, according to prosecutors. The classmate’s mother, Elizabeth Riedel, called the police, which set off the investigation.
Riedel testified on Tuesday that the child arrived at her doorstep at 7:30 a.m. and appeared “”disheveled,” “scared” and “had an odor to her.” Another witness, the girl’s school bus driver Bobbi Dean, made similar observations.
“You could tell she was distressed and upset,” said Dean, who also testified Tuesday.
In video-recorded police questioning, Morse, who heads the Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness and has appeared on “Oprah” and “Good Morning America,” acknowledged making the threat, but said he meant the child would be forced to clean her room and throw away her Harry Potter books.
“I have a really good relationship with her,” said Morse. “I haven’t spanked her in years.”
Morse also denied dragging the child across the gravel. Asked by an investigating officer how she got bruises and scratching on her back, Morse said “she was kicking so much, at times, I dropped her.”
The girl’s mother, Pauline Morse, who witnessed the incidents but did not intervene, was also arrested. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in May and agreed to testify against Morse.
Prosecutors plan to call the child to the witness stand this week, possibly on Wednesday.
Reporting by Lacey Johnson; editing by Chris Francescani and Edith Honan nL2N0L21U4