It’s almost like a gritty, high-octane action flick. The female lead is a young prostitute and this is the climax of her narrative arc. After years of being mentally and physically abused by her pimp, they get into one last altercation outside of a bank. The pimp punches her face, elbows her eye and slams a car door on her head. She fights back — teeth, nails, everything she’s got — and manages to knock him to the ground. Then she gets into the car and looks at her pimp through the windshield. She slams her foot on the gas and runs the bastard over — because that’s exactly what he deserves. Her wheels screech out of the parking lot. She pulls into an empty field, lights the car on fire and walks away — a free and empowered woman.
Then the cops show up and she’s arrested and charged with murder because this isn’t Hollywood movie magic. It’s case number BA462626: The People vs. Andrea Moorer. And in real life, “he deserved it” is not a valid defense in the court of law.
It’s April 30, 2019 and the courtroom is sleepy. A stocky man in his 60s nods off in the front row of the gallery. He snores, prompting his spouse to give him a firm shove. Judge Henry Hall sits on the bench. His head is adorned by well-coiffed white hair and silver-rimmed spectacles. Hall is a brick wall of emotion. He rests his long face and permanent frown on his clenched fist. He’s so still, he could be posing for a photograph in the 1800s. The man on the stand is Dr. Jack Rothberg, a specialist in forensic psychiatry and a witness for the defense. Rothberg has silver hair and wears bland colors. He spouts knowledge in short, nervous bursts.
The most animated person in the room is defendant Andrea Moorer. She’s active in her listening. Eyes wide, she leans forward when the doctor gives his testimony and turns her chair when her attorney, Public Defender Jimmy Chu, gives a hypothetical. Under the jarring flourescent lights of the court, Moorer looks nothing like a prostitute. She’s a 24-year-old woman with a clean face and a thick tan cardigan. Her black hair is dyed red-orange and pulled back in a thick, messy ponytail. She looks like a college student who has been up all night studying for the LSATs.
That subtle air of intellect may actually be a problem for Moorer, because in a case where “he deserved it” is not an adequate defense, the substitute is “she didn’t know what she was doing.”
The fatal fight occurred outside of a Bank of America and was caught on two cameras. There were also several witnesses, including one who filmed the incident on his phone. All of these videos show Moorer involved in a violent fight with her pimp, Ruffino Anderson. Moorer knocks Anderson to the ground before getting in the vehicle and running him over. The time between the fight and the hit and run is 44 seconds. That 44 seconds prevents Moorer’s attorney from making a plausible case for self-defense. Instead, to give his client her freedom, Chu must strip her of her agency and make her a victim, not a survivor. That is exactly why Rothberg is on the stand.
Rothberg has examined Moore and diagnosed her with severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and severe learning difficulties. The defense attorney asks Rothberg if Moorer “appeared to be confused over trivial matters.” The doctor responds in the affirmative. The defense asks about Moorer’s intellect. Rothberg shrugs, “it’s not at the level of mental retardation.” Then, without a glance to Moorer, Chu strolls up and down the aisle and chronicles her extensive and gut-wrenching history of physical, mental, and sexual abuse — including an incident three months prior to the event in which she was dragged out of a car by her hair and raped on the side of the road. Chu adjusts his watch and looks up at Rothberg. “How might that affect her state of mind during the event?” Unsurprisingly, the answer is “negatively.” Rothberg clasps his hands with a clinical flourish. “It’s flight or fight. We see it all the time in animals.”
Moorer has been reduced to an animal. A helpless, intellectually impaired victim of circumstance whose trauma is being kicked around the courtroom. The judge is a man, the bailiff is a man, the defense attorney is a man, and the witness on the stand is a man. When Rothberg compares the effects of PTSD to athletes getting in the zone, Chu smiles and responds “sports, now you’re speaking my language.” They compare a rape survivor’s response to abuse to a baseball player’s focus on the ball. It’s not just a bad analogy; it’s absurdly masculine. Right now they are speaking the same language and that is one of the male experience.
Then the prosecutor stands up for cross-examination. She’s a woman. Deputy District Attorney Brittney Phillips is tall. She has blonde hair, blunt bangs and an angular jawline. I want her to approach the bench and tell the judge to throw this case out. I want her to say that Moorer gets a pass. I want her to look at the jury and proclaim that as a woman she won’t stand for this. Moorer killed her abusive pimp — so what if she did it on purpose! Isn’t that justice? The prosecution rests!
That’s what would happen in a movie. But this isn’t a movie: it’s April 30, 2019. It’s a Thursday, it’s 67 degrees outside, and it’s Phillips’s job to prove that Moorer is guilty of first-degree murder. There’s no triumphant celebration on the courthouse steps, no tearful embrace of the defendant and her family, no victorious confirmation of female empowerment. The credits don’t roll.
Life just keeps going.
UPDATE: Andrea Moorer was found guilty of arson but the jury hung on the charge of second-degree murder and a mistrial was declared. Initial proceedings for a retrial are scheduled to begin on September 10.