By all accounts, Emani Moss was, for most of her 10 years of life, a bright, happy child.
“She was precious; it was a blessing to have her in my classroom,” Lisa Neal, Emani’s fourth grade teacher at Bethesda Elementary School, testified in the trial against Emani’s stepmother, Tiffany Moss, on Wednesday. “She was a wonderful friend to every student, even a bully that she tried so hard to be friends with on a daily basis.”
Born April 23, 2003, to a drug addict mother, the odds were stacked against Emani from her birth.
But she had a grandmother, Robin Moss, who fought hard for the girl’s well-being. She had an aunt, Sharoniece Moss, who loved Emani. And she had a father, Eman Moss, who, with sole custody of the girl since her infancy, protected her.
Until he didn’t.
‘She was always smiling’
Emani first met Tiffany Moss, who is facing the death penalty for allegedly starving the girl to death, in 2007 at Freedom Christian Church, where Eman Moss would take his daughter often, he testified Thursday.
“From the moment (they met) at church, (they got along),” Eman Moss said.
Over the next several years, as Eman Moss and Tiffany Moss began a romantic relationship — the two married in July 2009 — Moss never indicated she had an issue with Emani, Eman Moss said.
Yet less than a year later after the wedding, in March 2010, Moss beat Emani.
“(Moss) admitted to striking Emani with a brown leather belt, as Emani described it, for not doing her homework,” Gwinnett County Police Department Sgt. Diane King testified Wednesday. “(Moss) said she thought it was only three times (she beat Emani).”
After Moss pleaded guilty to beating Emani, the then-six-year-old was taken out of the Mosses’ home and placed with Robin Moss for about six months. There, Emani flourished.
“When she was with me, everything was improving — her grades, her actions — she was just doing awesome,” Robin Moss said. “I know when she came back with me, everything calmed back down in her life.”
At the conclusion those six months, in fall 2010, Robin Moss said, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services returned her granddaughter to Tiffany and Eman Moss — something Robin Moss tried to fight.
Eman Moss testified to as much Thursday, admitting that Emani should have remained with her grandmother.
“In my pride ... I was trying to prove something to my mom, that I can do it, and I said no (to her request that Emani live with her),” Eman Moss said.
Despite being returned to her father and stepmother’s home, from which she tried to run away multiple times, Emani performed and behaved well in school, said Neal, who was Emani’s teacher during the 2012-13 school year.
“Emani had the most beautiful smile, and that’s what I’ll always remember about her,” she said through tears on Wednesday. “She was so precious ... School was her safe place, so she was always smiling.”
Once the 2012-13 school year concluded, Moss and her husband announced their intention to remove Emani from public school, and instead homeschool her.
Sharoniece Moss testified Wednesday she objected to that, at one point calling DFCS to intervene. The state agency did not.
“It made no sense to me because they had two small children and it just made no sense to take her out of school and homeschool her,” Sharoniece Moss said. “Then, not to mention the situation from Mother’s Day (2013) when (Emani) didn’t look like herself — it was just something not right.”
Cause of death: starvation; Manner of death: homicide
Though Emani had always been a lean child, as Moss allegedly began to starve the girl, she grew thinner and thinner.
By the time she died in late October 2013, Emani weighed 32 pounds and was “more or less skin and bones,” Oregon State Medical Examiner Michele Stauffenberg, who, in 2013, served as a fill-in medical examiner for Gwinnett and performed Emani’s autopsy, testified Friday.
“She was extremely thin and emaciated; she had a starved look,” Stauffenberg said. “Based on her weight and the loss of muscle mass and the fact that her organs were so small compared to the normal charts, I was able to conclude from that that she had died from starvation ... The manner of death is homicide.”
Though Stauffenberg could not give an exact time frame as to how long Emani was starved before she died, she said the process would have been painful.
“The first thing that would happen, in the early stages, is (Emani) would experience hunger pains,” Stauffenberg said. “She would probably feel hungry, she would be asking for food, looking for food, craving food. Following that, the next step would be apathy, fatigue, not able to do her usual activities. From there, she would become more and more listless, eventually lethargic and mental status changes. She wouldn’t feel like moving around much; she wouldn’t have much energy. There would be extreme weight loss that would be visible. And then finally, death.”
That weight loss was apparent in the autopsy photos prosecutors showed the jury Friday afternoon — a sight several jurors had to turn away from.
Though the jury as a whole had showed little outward expression in the first two and a half days of trial, as the photos of Emani’s emaciated body were projected on a courtroom television screen, one juror, then a second, began to cry. Several men put their head in their hands.
Meanwhile Tiffany Moss didn’t look up once.
State rests; Moss presents no defense
Stauffenberg’s testimony Friday afternoon concluded the state’s case, save for its closing arguments, which will be presented Monday morning.
In total, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter and Assistant District Attorney Lisa Jones called 18 witnesses to the stand, while Moss remained silent.
When the trial opened Wednesday morning, she declined to give an opening statement. She then politely refused to cross examine any witnesses.
That silence continued Friday afternoon after the state rested its case; Moss did not testify in defense, nor did she present any other defense, and rested her case in front of the jury shortly after 2 p.m.
Gwinnett County Superior Court Chief Judge George Hutchinson took over from there.
“The evidence, in respect to this phase of the trial, ladies and gentlemen, is closed,” he said to the jury. “There are matters that we need to take up outside of your presence; those can take some considerable period of time. You are here after a long week on a Friday afternoon, so my inclination is to let you all go early while we attend to those matters that you can’t be a part of in any event.”
Following the jury’s exit — the group will reconvene Monday morning for the remainder of the case — the court held its charge conference, or a meeting between a judge and the parties’ lawyers to determine the instructions the court will give to the jury to determine their verdict.
The state will present its closing arguments Monday; it’s unclear whether Moss will make any last-minute attempt at a defense.