Watching a retrial of a case that you followed before is a lot like watching a movie for a second time. There are some films that don’t hold up – the sparkle of the first viewing reduced to a dull matte of cliché tropes and character stereotypes. In better cinema, plot points that escaped you reveal their intricate patchwork and character moments that you didn’t appreciate before showcase fine layers of emotional complexity.
But sometimes you watch a film again and realize something unsettling; something that reflects more about you than the movie.
You realize that you missed the entire point of the film.
In May of 2019 I watched and wrote about Andrea Moorer’s trial.
I thought it was like a gritty, high-octane action flick. The female lead was a young sex worker and this was the climax of her narrative arc. After years of being mentally and physically abused by her pimp, they got into one last altercation outside of a bank. The pimp punched her face, elbowed her eye and slammed a car door on her head. She fought back — teeth, nails, everything she had — and managed to knock him to the ground. Then she got into the car and looked at her pimp through the windshield. She slammed her foot on the gas and ran the bastard over — because that’s exactly what he deserved. Her wheels screeched out of the parking lot. She pulled into an empty field, lit the car on fire and walked away — a free and empowered woman.
Then the cops showed up and she was arrested and charged with murder. This wasn’t Hollywood movie magic. But in May I wished it was. I truly felt Moorer should be acquitted on the grounds that her pimp “deserved it.” When the jury hung on the charge of first-degree murder, I was disappointed. I thought the law should bend toward empathy for Moorer. The stale legislation entombed in the books stacked on the judge’s bench seemed heartless. The stony penal codes had no right to condemn a woman who had faced inexplicable emotional and physical trauma.
As I watch Andrea Moorer’s retrial, I realize I was wrong.
I was wrong about a word. The term “prostitute” was thrown around in both Moorer’s original trial and retrial by both the defense and the prosecution. I used the word to describe Moorer in my first article. That collection of letters is titillating and scandalous but also derogatory. I’ll refer to Moorer as a “sex-worker” in this article to avoid conflating her identity with her profession and remove the associated stigma.
I was wrong about the facts. In my first article I reported that the victim in this case, Ruffino Anderson, was Moorer’s pimp. In the retrial Anderson was portrayed as a John who may or may not have had a prior relationship with Moorer.
I was wrong when I internally cheered for a man’s death.
Friday, November 21 Andrea Moorer takes the stand to testify in her own defense for the second time. It is déjà vu with different scenery. Instead of Judge Henry Hall at the bench, Judge Eleanor Hunter presides. Hunter has delicately curled blonde locks and Cindy Lou Who features. But there’s nothing Seussical about Hunt’s attitude. She’s sharp, stern, and intimidating to defense attorneys and deputy DA’s alike. Hunt has a reputation as a strict enforcer of the law. She’d give the Grinch the maximum sentence for burglary. It doesn’t matter how many sizes his heart grew.
The Deputy DA has also changed. Due to a personal emergency, Brittany Flynn had to give up the case on short notice to Matt Pfeffer. Over six feet tall with a buzz of blonde hair and an earnest smile, Pfeffer seems like the kind of guy who has been the best man at many weddings. He’s quick with a joke and sentimental when it matters. Staring him down at the counsel’s table is the familiar Jimmy Chu. The public defender’s mannerisms haven’t changed a bit since the last trial. As he questions witnesses, he fidgets with the strap of his watch, paces by the lectern and meticulously caps and uncaps his pens.
At the witness stand, Andrea Moorer isn’t as animated as she was at the first trial. Her hair, once tinted with orange and pulled into a thick, frizzy ponytail, is simply black and pulled tight in a bun. She answers questions slowly, as though sifting through molasses memories.
The fatal fight that ended in Ruffino Anderson’s death occurred outside of a Bank of America and was caught on two security cameras. In court, Chu plays a ten-minute clip of the incident and Moorer is forced to narrate the acts that ensued.
The clip isn’t a gritty high-octane action flick.
Its violence is relentless. It has no intended audience.
According to Moorer, she and Anderson were in his car when he asked her to “suck his dick” without a condom. When she refused, he sucker punched her in the head, which led to a brawl. On the tape, Anderson’s white sedan jostles as the occupants exchange blows. When the passenger door opens, Moorer spills out of the car and Anderson straddles her, wearing just his boxers and a tan trench coat. He grabs a fist of her hair and slams her head on the cement four times. Then he throws her against the car and crushes her head with the car door three times. Somehow Moorer remains conscious and continues to wrestle with Anderson. She gouges his eyes, punches him and chokes him. Miraculously, he stops fighting. His body lays sprawled on the street at the car’s front bumper, motionless. Moorer staggers to her feet, collects her possessions from the asphalt, and kicks Anderson in the head one more time.
She slumps into the driver’s seat of Anderson’s sedan. She reverses the car. She stops. She hits the gas. The vehicle’s wheels churn over Anderson’s body, leaving his limbs splayed at odd angles: no longer a living man, just a mangled corpse.
The white sedan jerks to a stop after hitting Anderson’s body. A back door opens and closes, then the vehicle screeches out of frame. Moorer admits she then drove the car to a clearing and lit it on fire. Witnesses saw the smoke and alerted police.
It’s natural to want to give Andrea Moorer a free pass. Our culture has a love affair with vigilante justice, the kind exercised by super heroes and cops who don’t play by the rules. And righteous vengeance, especially involving a woman’s body, runs deep in our national veins – from stories where fathers kill to protect their daughters, to sagas of women seeking revenge on their rapists. These narratives are powerful because they cater to our most primal emotions – our desire for protection, control, and our fear of losing both. But it can be dangerous to reduce real-life events to the syrup of a parable.
Paul Butler has said “the purpose of the law is to mediate some of our most base instincts. The purpose of the law is to rise above emotion and primitive desires to help forge a civilization.” In revisiting my original piece about Moorer’s trial, I see my own base instincts on display. Since that article, I’ve developed a much keener understanding of the importance of clinical reasoning in the courtroom. While writing about The People vs. Stephen Houk, I was forced to acknowledge that even the most abhorrent individuals have the right to an attorney and a fair trial. In a piece I penned about victim impact statements, I grappled with how emotional statements made by victims of sexual abuse may actually infringe on a defendant’s constitutional rights. These have not been easy conclusions to stomach. Righteous anger is a dammed river. If the dam breaks all measured thought will be lost in a raging tide, so the integrity of the structure must be watched with a vigilant eye.
In observing the retrial of Andrea Moorer, I have to confront the case in all of its stark complexity. I can’t allow my judgment to be overcome by sympathetic bias. Here’s the uncomfortable reality: If I believe that Moorer hit Anderson on purpose and I condone her actions, then I am supporting capital punishment without due process.
I don’t support capital punishment at all.
The emotions that I once felt about the case were valid but misdirected. In light of the amount of evidence, it was naïve to dream about prosecutors dropping Moorer’s case. What’s not naïve is to unpack the reasons it makes me feel like a monster to intellectually endorse Moorer’s conviction.
First, Andrea Moorer suffered a lifetime of physical and mental abuse that degraded her self-worth.
Second, as a black sex-worker, she had trouble trusting the police and feared they wouldn’t care about her well being.
And third, Moorer is a woman who was overcome by a violent man who may have assaulted her in the future had he not been killed.
These circumstances color how I view the sentence that Moorer may face if convicted (25 years to life for first degree murder, 15 years to life for second degree murder, and 1 to 11 years for voluntary manslaughter). While Moorer’s situation shouldn’t necessarily impact the jury’s verdict, I believe it ought to impact her punishment. I want the judge to take Moorer’s situation into consideration and give her the lowest possible prison sentence. I want Moorer to be supported by highly trained counselors so that she can process her trauma while she serves her time. After everything she’s been through, I just want Andrea Moorer to have a good life.
Isn’t that justice?
That’s not what would happen in a movie. In a movie there would be attorneys throwing their briefcases in the courtroom, or a surprise witness that changes everything, or a dangerous prison escape. But this isn’t a movie: it’s November 22, 2019. It’s a Friday, it’s 61 degrees outside, and Andrea Moorer is on trial for the murder of Ruffino Anderson. In reality, morality isn’t black and white, the law doesn’t change in a day, and stories don’t have clear heroes and villains.
I can’t give Andrea Moorer a happy ending.
I can only hope that she finds a new beginning.
On November 25, 2019 the jury found Andrea Moorer not guilty of murder, but did find her guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Her sentencing hearing is scheduled for January 22, 2020.