LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — "This is a case of a Cinderella story gone horribly wrong," District Attorney Danny Porter said during opening statements at Tiffany Moss' death penalty murder trial, which started this morning at the Gwinnett County courthouse.
Moss is accused of starving her stepdaughter to death in 2013 and burning her body in an effort to hide the crime. At 10 years old, Emani Moss only weighed 32 pounds when she died.
Moss is acting as her own lawyer, despite the judge’s efforts to convince her to use public defenders. If convicted, she could face the death penalty.
She has two court-appointed standby attorneys to answer any legal questions she may have. However, she has only spoken to them once since the trial began last week.
On the first day of her murder trial, Moss declined to give an opening argument. She also declined to cross examine the state's two first witnesses -- a police officer and Emani's grandmother.
“There won’t be any happy ending (to this story),” Porter said. “This is a case where you only have an evil stepmother. As a result of that, a 11-year-old child is starved to death while her (the defendant’s) own children remained healthy and happy.”
And with that, Porter began laying out what he says were the final days, months, and years of Emani Moss’ short life.
“This is a terrible case,” said Porter in opening statements. “The facts of this case are difficult. There will be photographs and testimony and it will be hard not to look away.”
Moss was convicted of abuse several years before Emani’s death. Porter said that the incident launched an escalating cycle of horrific abuse, because Moss was no longer able to resume her former job as a preschool teacher.
During the time Emani was allegedly suffering abuse at the hands of her stepmother, she was living in the home with her father and her two stepsiblings. They were the biological children of Tiffany and Eman Moss, Emani’s father. According to the D.A. and court records, there is no record of abuse toward the other two children in the home.
“In order to reach the truth of this case you can’t flinch. You can’t turn away from the truth,” Porter told the jurors.
Porter walked the courtroom through Emani’s final days. When her father returned home from work, on Oct. 24, 2013, he found her daughter unresponsive in a bathtub and placed her in her bed. She never left that bed, dying a few days later, Porter said.
According to the D.A., Tiffany Moss decided they needed to burn Emani’s body and report her as a runaway. Moss was still on probation for the earlier abuse charge and was scared she would lose custody of her two biological children.
In one particularly disturbing scene during opening statements, Porter explained how he said Tiffany and Eman Moss manipulated Emani’s body into a trash can so they could burn it. He crouched down on the balls of his feet on the floor, illustrating how the girl’s body was compressed to fit inside. Jurors turned away or looked at the floor as he crouched on the ground.
During all of this, Tiffany Moss stared down or straight ahead showing no emotion as she has during the entirety of the trial.
Porter finished his statements by telling jurors that Emani’s dad eventually called police to tell them of his daughter’s murder, while Tiffany Moss fled with her other two children. Eventually, she surrendered to a Roswell Police officer.
Eman Moss, Emani's father, is serving life in prison without parole for his crimes. He is expected to testify Thursday against his wife.
After opening statements, the District Attorney rapidly went through almost a dozen witnesses. Moss had no questions for any of them.
The most notable witnesses were two police officers. They each testified about finding Emani when she ran away from home on two separate occasions. One officer said Emani told him she ran away from home after her stepmother tied her to a chair with belts and put her in the shower. The officer reported the case to the Deptartment of Family and Child Services.
The other officer testified he found Emani sleeping in the bushes of a nearby apartment complex one night after her parents reported her as a runaway. She told the officer her stepmom was mean to her. He then filed charges of runaway against her, specifically to make sure she was seen by a judge, because he was concerned she may have been abused but she would not tell her. He also reported this to DFCS.
The Asst. District Attorney introduced into evidence graphic photos from the crime scene, which included Emani's body. As the court viewed the photos, one juror held a hand over the bottom of her face. She kept her eyes on the photo but was visibly moved by what she saw.
Perhaps the most bizarre scene of the day was when Tiffany Moss’ family testified. The defendant showed no emotion as her mother and sister took the stand. They mother and sister testified that they lived with Tiffany, Emani, and the rest of her family lived the summer before Emani died. They testified Emani was healthy and eating, even hugging her aunt on occasion. However, they said when the Moss family moved into their own apartment in late summer 2013 they rarely, if ever, saw Emani.
Court resumes Thursday morning and Tiffany Moss' husband is expected to take the stand.
If sentenced to death, Moss would be just the third woman executed in Georgia.