Opinion: Troubling outcome for horrific crime

Courts and Georgians should be concerned about trial, and resulting death sentence where defendant offered no defense.
Tiffany Moss showed little reaction to being convicted of murder for intentionally starving her 10-year-old stepdaughter Emani to death in the fall of 2013. She was sentenced to death. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Tiffany Moss showed little reaction to being convicted of murder for intentionally starving her 10-year-old stepdaughter Emani to death in the fall of 2013. She was sentenced to death. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The end result is nearly as unsettling as the horrific facts of the crime. That’s not an unreasonable light in which to review a key aspect of the murder trial of Tiffany Moss.

For certain, her icily evil and deliberate actions which led to the horrific death of 10-year-old Emani Moss shocked all who paid any attention to the ghastly acts and the capital murder trial that resulted.

The spectacle that unfolded in the courtroom was also profoundly disturbing, as defendant Moss was allowed to represent herself in Gwinnett County Superior Court. Her defense was to offer no defense at all. She sat largely silent as prosecutors made their case for conviction – and later – for imposition of society’s ultimate punishment – a life required for a life taken.

Homicide detectives who routinely see brutal examples of humanity’s inhumanity have been heard to remark that there’s little, if anything, law enforcement can do to specifically police against murder before it happens. That’s been the case since Cain killed Abel at the dawn of time.

Where society has a duty and opportunity is in seeing that, when crimes occur, justice is served as fairly as our legal system can reasonably ensure. The Constitution demands no less.

>> Did Tiffany Moss' right to self-representation trump her constitutional right to fair trial?

That seems especially important in death penalty cases. There, it should be a necessity for the system to provide a verdict that society can view as being proper, equitable and fair to defendants and victims alike. Toward that goal, a reasonable sense of confidence in the competence and adequacy of defense provided to the accused seems essential for public trust in the system.

The American legal system is built upon a cornerstone concept of legal adversaries of at least roughly equal competence battling over facts and evidence in courtrooms where judges and juries ultimately determine guilt, or non-guilt.

This system of jousting and sparring via trial tactics of legal objections, questioning and calling of witnesses, etc., is widely regarded as about the best mechanism ever devised to safeguard society’s interests.

It can only work adequately when two sides are heard, we believe. That did not happen in the Tiffany Moss trial. Against legal advice, and entreaties by the trial judge, Moss essentially shut down and refused to come to her own defense, even during the post-conviction sentencing phase when her life was, literally, on the line. The expected process of give-and-take battle instead became about as one-sided as it could possibly be, unacceptably so to the minds of some observers who saw experienced prosecutors having the only say before jurors.

Were there no legitimate question of Moss’s mental fitness to make the choice she did, we would likely not be writing this editorial. That’s not the case. Concerns have been raised as to her mental competence to make the decisions that she did. After a closed-door hearing on her mental fitness, the trial judge allowed Moss to represent herself. As it turned out, that decision enabled her to (non)-represent herself.

What resulted is problematic, we believe, particularly in a state like Georgia, which requires a relatively high legal threshold to prove mental incompetence.

A status quo that permits a defendant whose mental fitness is in question to shrink away from providing any defense in a death penalty case should be re-examined, we believe. Courts have held in cases from other states that judges have some authority to force defendants against their wishes to acquiesce to defense lawyers representing them.

The case of Tiffany Moss is far from over. It is now in the post-conviction phase where new trials are routinely sought, and either granted or denied in due course. Customary, automatic appeals to higher courts are certain to be filed.

It is in these coming legal actions that we earnestly hope that a higher court will offer additional legal clarity into the questions raised by the Moss case. Georgia’s courts should ultimately come down firmly toward establishing legal precedent that ensures the Constitutional rights of defendants are adequately safeguarded, particularly when mental fitness seems to be at issue.

In this time when American society routinely divides into camps of us vs. them on most any issue, none of what we write here should be seen as either being soft on law-and-order, or excusing criminal, even murderous behavior. Nor should it be read as a sleight-of-hand indictment of capital punishment, which courts have upheld time and again.

Had a qualified legal team vigorously represented Moss and her interests during her trial and the subsequent sentencing phase, whatever outcome resulted would have been a matter for the legal system’s process to resolve across time.

It’s worth noting on that point that the death sentence imposed in Emani Moss’s murder is the first delivered in Georgia in half a decade. That’s prima facie evidence, we believe, of the results that competent lawyering can obtain in convincing juries to choose options such as life imprisonment even for some heinous murders. During the penalty phase of trials, attorneys attempt to sway juries by presenting evidence about defendants’ life experiences and influences. And they argue that those points affected the accused’s state of mind when crimes were committed. This is accepted legal custom and practice.

None of that happened in the Tiffany Moss trial. And she was sentenced to death. That should trouble Georgians and the courts that will hear aspects of this case going forward.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.