A Gwinnett County jury on Tuesday handed down Georgia’s first death sentence in more than five years to a woman convicted of murdering her stepdaughter.
After two and a half hours of deliberation, the grim-faced jury of six men and six women sentenced Tiffany Moss to die by lethal injection for starving 10-year-old Emani to death in the fall of 2013. Moss showed no emotion as the unanimous decision was read aloud.
The final verdict capped off a disturbing trial. Testimony and graphic autopsy photos revealed the grisly details of Emani’s death and its gruesome aftermath. Moss and her husband stuffed the girl’s emaciated body in a trash can and set it on fire to try and cover up the crime.
Moss becomes the only woman on death row in Georgia and, if executed, would be just the third woman put to death in the state’s history.
Moss’s decision to represent herself was also highly unusual for a capital case.
The 36-year-old did nothing to defend herself in either the guilt-innocence or sentencing phases of the trial. She didn’t prepare for trial. She never once addressed the jury. She presented no evidence. And she asked no questions to any of the state’s witnesses.
While Moss remained silent, prosecutors depicted a devastating portrait of a woman who kept the young girl with an infectious smile confined to her room and denied her food until she wasted away.
All the while, Moss fed and cared for her own two children who lived with Emani in an apartment complex near Lawrenceville.
“There’s no joy when a jury imposes a death sentence,” District Attorney Danny Porter said after court adjourned. “But this was one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen. The first time you look at it it made you sick. The last time you look at it it makes you sick.”
» PHOTOS | Tiffany Moss found guilty of murder
As for Moss’s decision to represent herself and do nothing in her own defense, Porter noted that jurors notified the court they were at an “impasse” before they were sent home late Monday afternoon.
“At first and all last night,” Porter said, “I thought she had outsmarted us.” Maybe Moss had come up with a “brilliant strategy” to make jurors think she was unfairly undermatched as two prosecutors laid out the case against her, Porter said.
“The only other rational explanation is that she was resigned to whatever was going to happen,” he added. “She was going to let someone else inflict (her punishment).”
On Monday, when he asked the jury to sentence Moss to death, Porter recounted testimony from a medical examiner who described the stages of Emani’s suffering while she was denied nourishment week after week after week.
“There are some crimes that are so horrible, so heinous, the only balance you can pay is with your life,” he told the jury. “Justice demands the proper payment.”
More than a year ago, Moss decided to go it alone, saying she was putting her fate in God’s hands. She turned down representation from state capital defenders Brad Gardner and Emily Gilbert, who had been assigned her case.
Superior Court Judge George Hutchinson allowed Moss to be her own lawyer, but he appointed Gardner and Gilbert to be “standby counsel” and they sat in the courtroom gallery behind Moss, ready to assist her when called upon.
In prior court motions, the defenders disclosed that Moss had suffered brain damage. The details of this were presented to Hutchinson in a hearing closed to the prosecution and to the public, and the records of it remain under seal.
During the trial, when it became apparent Moss was going to put up no defense, Gardner and Gilbert asked Hutchinson to let them be Moss’s lawyers once again. But Hutchinson refused, after Moss told him she wanted to continue representing herself.
As the death sentence was read, Gilbert broke down sobbing in the courtroom.
When asked for her thoughts on what had transpired, Gilbert said, “I think this ridiculous spectacle speaks for itself.”
Gardner said his office will file Moss’s appeal, and he believed, based on a conversation he had with Moss in a holding cell after the trial, she will allow that to happen. In fact, the capital defender office's appellate lawyers filed a motion for a new trial on Moss’s behalf just hours after the final verdict.
Under Georgia law, once someone is sentenced to death, there is an automatic appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. Even if the condemned killer doesn’t want legal representation and files no appeal, the state’s high court will still review the record of the case and issue an opinion, Porter said.
Atlanta lawyer Ken Driggs, who has defended capital cases, sat through most of the trial to witness the oddity of Moss representing herself.
“Given the way the trial played out, I wasn’t surprised,” Driggs said of the jury’s verdict. “I was struck by the complete and apparent lack of emotion on her part with the sentence. That strikes me as consistent with a mental health issue going on with her.”
The last time a death-penalty defendant in Georgia represented himself was in 2015. Jamie Hood, serving as his own lawyer, was convicted of the murder of an Athens-Clarke County police officer and other offenses.
But Hood, who played an active role in his defense, escaped the death penalty when the jury sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The last time a death sentence was handed down by a Georgia jury was March 2014 in Augusta against Adrian Hargrove, who committed a triple murder.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Lisa Jones, who assisted Porter in bringing the case against Moss, was asked what she thought about a death sentence being imposed at a time when it’s become such a rare occurrence in Georgia and nationwide.
“I would say we were a little bit surprised,” she said. “But if there was ever a case for that being the appropriate sentence, this was the one.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.