Gwinnett woman representing herself faces death penalty in child’s slaying

A Gwinnett County woman facing the death penalty and representing herself at trial was finally given the chance on Wednesday to tell her side of the story.

But Tiffany Moss surprised most everyone in the packed courtroom by declining to address the jury with an opening statement. Later, as 10 prosecution witnesses took the stand, Moss did not ask a single question or lodge a single objection.

With such an inauspicious beginning, it’s now an open question as to whether Moss will put up any fight at all on her own behalf. She sat silent after District Attorney Danny Porter described her as an “evil stepmother” who severely beat 10-year-old Emani before ruthlessly starving her to death and burning her body.

For more than a year, Moss has insisted on going it alone, saying she was putting her fate in God’s hands. But a court motion previously filed by capital public defenders who once represented her may help explain Moss’ silence. It disclosed that she suffered damage to the area of her brain responsible for self-awareness, forethought, judgment and reasoning.

Moss’ decision not to give an opening statement followed a devastating one given by Porter. He told jurors what they were about to see and hear would be hard to handle.

Emani Moss was 10 when her starved, burned body was found outside her family’s Lawrenceville apartment. 
Photo: Family photo

“This is a terrible case,” the DA said. “But in order to reach the truth, you can’t flinch. You have to face it.”

Gwinnett police became involved in Emani’s death on Nov. 2, 2013, after receiving a desperate 4 a.m. phone call from a suicidal Eman Moss, Emani’s father and Tiffany Moss’ husband.

When police arrived, they found a silver, galvanized trash can with Emani’s 32-pound body stuffed inside and shrouded by a trash bag. Eman Moss would later plead guilty to his role in his daughter’s death and be sentenced to life in prison without parole. He is expected to testify against his wife on Thursday.

At school, Emani was well-liked — a healthy, happy young girl. Home life, however, was a living hell, Porter said.

April 24, 2019 - Lawrenceville - During his opening argument, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter told jurors that Moss intentionally starved her 10-year-old stepdaughter Emani to death in the fall of 2013. 
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

In 2010, Tiffany Moss “beat the lights out of that child” while disciplining her with a belt, Porter said. The next day, upon seeing Emani’s bruises and welts, her teacher notified child welfare officials. Moss was soon charged with cruelty to children and resolved the case with a guilty plea.

But Moss would eventually take care of Emani once again and have two children of her own. During this time, Emani repeatedly ran away from home, saying she was scared of her stepmother, Porter said.

In the summer of 2013, the family moved into an apartment complex in the Lawrenceville area, where it was decided Tiffany Moss would home-school Emani while Eman Moss worked two jobs.

After that, Emani pretty much disappeared from view, Porter said. One day in October 2013, Eman Moss arrived home and found Emani in the bathtub. She was unresponsive with her eyes rolling from side to side. But instead of calling for help, Moss put his daughter back into bed.

Eman Moss pleaded guilty to felony murder in the 2013 death of his daughter Emani Moss, who weighed 32 pounds.
Photo: Family photo

When Moss returned from work a few days later, he found his daughter was dead. When he suggested calling police, Tiffany Moss would have none of it, Porter said.

“I can’t go to prison,” Moss said, according to Porter. “I’m on probation. … We have to get rid of the body and report her as a runaway.”

Eman Moss then bought the galvanized trash can and stuffed Emani’s body into it. Days later, when Emani’s surviving siblings prepared to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, the trash can holding the dead girl’s body sat in the family’s computer room, Porter said.

The next day, with the trash can in the back of the family’s Chevy Trailblazer, Eman and Tiffany Moss drove to a secluded area off Satellite Boulevard. Together, they took the trash can out and placed it on the ground. They added charcoal briquettes and poured lighter fluid inside and set it on fire, Porter said.

When Eman Moss realized Emani’s body was not going to burn down to ashes, he put the trash can back in his truck and left. “When he came home,” Porter said, “he couldn’t take it anymore.”

April 24, 2019 - Lawrenceville - Lisa Neal (right), who was Emani Moss' elementary school teacher, gives Robin Moss, Emani's grandmother, a hug after Neal testified during Day One of the Tiffany Moss death penalty trial. Tiffany Moss is accused of starving her stepdaughter Emani, and then trying to burn the corpse.     
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Among the 10 prosecution witnesses were Tiffany Moss’ mom, Pearlie Bashir, and sister, Brittany Brown. With sad eyes and a dejected tone, they testified how Moss showed up at their door not long after Eman Moss had called police.

“Don’t let them take my children,” Tiffany Moss said, leaving her two kids with her mom. She also said, “Emani’s dead,” Bashir testified.

When asked if she had questions for her mother, Moss moved forward and looked like she was getting ready to stand. But then she leaned back and said once again, “No questions.”

The courtroom went still during the testimony of Michael Poppy, who was a Gwinnett County police officer when he responded to Eman Moss’ 911 call. The distraught father falsely told Poppy that Emani had died after drinking some chemicals.

“He said he didn’t know what to do, so he put her in a garbage can,” said Poppy, who testified he walked uncertainly over to the trash can and removed the lid. Inside, he saw one of Emani’s legs pressing up through the garbage bag. And he later identified the photo he took of that sight, which was displayed on a large screen in the courtroom.

April 24, 2019 - Lawrenceville - Lisa Neal, who was Emani Moss' elementary school teacher, tells the court what Emani was like as a student during Day One of testimony in the Tiffany Moss death penalty trial. Tiffany Moss is accused of starving her  stepdaughter Emani, then trying to burn the corpse.    
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Among those remembering Emani was her fourth-grade teacher, Lisa Neal, of Bethesda Elementary School.

“She always wanted to help people,” Neal said, becoming emotional. “She had that beautiful smile. That’s what I’ll always remember about her. She was so precious.”

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