Trial set for Gwinnett stepmom defending herself in capital case

A judge on Thursday set an April trial date for death-penalty defendant Tiffany Moss, the Gwinnett County woman who is representing herself against a murder charge that she starved her 10-year-old stepdaughter to death.

Shackled and wearing a prison jumpsuit, Moss walked into court holding nothing in her hands — no court documents, no pen and paper with which to take notes of the proceedings. On the few occasions Superior Court Judge George Hutchinson asked her if she had any questions, Moss politely answered no and said nothing else.

Against the advice of just about everyone associated with the case, Moss, saying it's God will, has decided to defend herself alone. Hutchinson, who has strongly urged Moss to accept legal representation, previously appointed Brad Gardner and Emily Gilbert from the state Office of the Capital Defender to serve as standby lawyers in case Moss changes her mind. The two grim-faced capital defenders sat behind Moss in the courtroom gallery during Thursday's brief hearing.

Hutchinson set April 8 for potential jurors to show up at the courthouse and for jury selection to begin April 15.

One potential holdup to the trial is an ongoing challenge to the county’s jury pool raised by lawyers for another death-penalty defendant in Gwinnett, District Attorney Danny Porter told the judge. If the Georgia Supreme Court decides to hear an appeal involving that issue, Moss’s trial may have to be delayed until that is resolved.

Moss is accused of starving 10-year-old Emani Moss to death and then burning her body in 2013. Emani weighed only 32 pounds when her body was found in a dumpster outside the apartment where she lived with her father, Eman Moss, and her stepmother.

Emam Moss, who was also charged in the case, pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has agreed to testify for the state.

Last year, Hutchinson ruled that Moss could represent herself, but he allowed Gardner and Gilbert to appeal his decision to the state Supreme Court. In December, the justices declined to hear the appeal, which led to Thursday's hearing.

Before adjourning court, Hutchinson asked Moss, “Is there anything you need in your trial preparations coming up?”

“No, sir,” she replied.

When the hearing was over, Porter, the longtime Gwinnett DA, said prosecuting a death-penalty case against a lawyer-less defendant “presents an unusual set of challenges.”

“You not only have to prepare the case, you also have to keep an eye on the record to make sure no mistakes are being made. And then there’s the question of how far do you go to protect her from herself?”

Moss’ decision to represent herself in a capital case is not without precedent.

In 2015, Jamie Hood, serving as his own lawyer, was convicted of the murder of an Athens-Clarke County police officer. But the jury declined to impose a death sentence, and Hood was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Story So Far

November 2013 — Police find Emani Moss’s burned body in a dumpster near the apartment where she lived with her father and stepmother in Lawrenceville.

January 2014 — Gwinnett County’s district attorney serves notice he is seeking the death penalty against Emani’s mother, Tiffany Moss.

December 2018 — The Georgia Supreme Court declines to hear a pretrial appeal of a judge’s decision to allow Moss represent herself at her capital trial.