GWINNETT, Ga. — The death penalty trial began Wednesday for a woman accused of killing her stepdaughter.
If convicted and the maximum penalty is imposed, Tiffany Moss could become the third woman to be executed in Georgia.
Police said she and her husband starved Emani Moss to death in 2013 and then tried to get rid of her body.
Emani's father pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence.
Moss, who is representing herself, did not ask a single question of the witnesses called Wednesday and declined to give an opening statement to the jury.
Prosecutors gave a statement and told a heart-wrenching story of ongoing abuse and murder.
NOTE: Details of this case may be too disturbing for some readers.
Moss is accused of starving her then-10-year-old stepdaughter to death in 2013, then, with the help of her husband, dumping the 32-pound girl in a trash can and burning the body. Tuesday would have been Emani's 16th birthday.
District Attorney Danny Porter compared the case to a fairy tale with a terrible ending.
“This is a case of Cinderella gone horribly wrong. In this case, there won't be any glass slipper. There won't be any handsome prince. This is a case where you only have the evil stepmother,” Porter said.
Moss has standby lawyers available, but she did not have any conversations with them Wednesday.
Moss' mother-in-law testified that in the months before Emani's death, she worried about her granddaughters’ condition.
“She was so thin, so thin. You could see the bones protruding out of her shirt,” Robin Moss said.
But the suspect’s own family said they didn't notice anything unusual.
“Emani was thin, but she was eating. She was not being starved. She was eating,” Tiffany Moss’ mother Pearlie Bashir said.
There were 11 witnesses and Moss did not ask one question.
Wednesday will be a big day. Moss’ husband Eman is set to testify as part of the plea deal that gave him life in prison.
As described by law enforcement officials, the brutal death of Emani is one of the most notorious cases of child abuse in Georgia history. The young girl weighed only 32 pounds when her charred body was found in a dumpster outside the apartment where she lived.
Moss has said she is leaving her fate in God's hands, rather than the two experienced public defenders who were initially assigned to represent her. They work for the state's capital defender office, which is credited as a primary reason no one has received a death sentence in Georgia in more than five years.
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. When asked why death sentences have become so rare, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree with Mauldin’s assessment: The availability of a life-without-parole sentence is seen by many as more acceptable.
Without a skillful and cohesive defense, Moss could break the drought and receive Georgia’s first death sentence in years.
Nationally, views about the death penalty have also been changing. Over the past decade, eight states abolished capital punishment through court rulings, moratoriums issued by governors and repeals at the ballot box or in the Legislature.
And there have even been some signals of shift in a law-and-order state like Georgia. Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty here. It was introduced too late to move this session but will be up for consideration when lawmakers gather again next year.
But the death penalty still remains on the books in Georgia and this week it’s staring Moss in the face.
Brad Gardner and Emily Gilbert, the two capital defenders initially assigned to represent Moss, have said she stopped talking to them months ago. Superior Court Judge George Hutchinson has assigned them to be “standby counsel,” and they sit in the courtroom gallery ready to assist Moss if she asks for help.
During trial, it’s possible the capital defenders could ask Hutchinson to reconsider his decision. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants found competent to stand trial are not necessarily competent to represent themselves if they can’t conduct their own defense. The court said the trial judge should made such a decision in the interest of achieving a fair trial.
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