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Plea deal almost crumbled in slaying of law grad from Md.

MACON, Ga. — The man who pleaded guilty to killing and dismembering a law school classmate in Macon almost turned down the plea deal until he was swayed by last-minute negotiations, according to his defense attorney and the victim’s family.

Stephen McDaniel, 28, was sentenced to life in prison a week ago after he pleaded guilty to malice murder charges in the June 2011 slaying of his neighbor and recent Mercer University Law School graduate Lauren Giddings. Had he balked, McDaniel’s trial had been scheduled to start Monday.

While plea deals are often tenuous, McDaniel’s was “more iffy than most,” said Floyd Buford, one of his defense attorneys. Buford said McDaniel insisted that Giddings’ parents in Laurel, Md., drop a wrongful death lawsuit against him as a condition of his plea.

“We just wanted to have everything wrapped up,” Buford told The Macon Telegraph.

Giddings, 27, and McDaniel were next-door neighbors at a Macon apartment complex when she went missing nearly three years ago. Police found the woman’s torso in a trash bin outside the complex, but the rest of her remains were never recovered.

McDaniel’s plea included a written confession in which he admitted choking Giddings to death as she slept and dumping the rest of her body in a trash bin at Mercer University law school.

Giddings’ close friend, Kristin Miller, said the woman’s family agreed to dismiss its civil suit against McDaniel if his confession was “fulsome, truthful and verifiable.” Miller, who has served as a spokeswoman for Giddings’ family, said there were some doubts about whether McDaniel’s confession was completely forthcoming.

“We thought it was written backwards to fit the known evidence,” Miller said. “It fits all we know.”

McDaniel still hadn’t agreed to a counter offer by Giddings’ family when they gathered in court for his anticipated plea hearing April 21. Her parents and their attorneys were called into the hallway for an impromptu meeting with Buford. Miller said he told them McDaniel would back out of the plea unless the Giddings family dismissed its civil suit.

Both sides ended up agreeing to a consent judgment against McDaniel finding him liable in Giddings’ death. The compromise entitles her parents to a hearing to determine monetary damages if McDaniel is ever granted parole.

Kaitlyn Wheeler, Giddings’ sister, said McDaniel “took advantage of us in our most vulnerable state” in the last-minute negotiations.

“He had no respect for us,” Wheeler said.