Sunday Interview: LaRae Moore talks about new job, 'the code of silence' and the Chiefs

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 9, 2014 

LaRae Moore has been practicing law in Columbus for nearly 20 years, much of that time as a prosecutor in the Muscogee County District Attorney’s office.

In July, the senior assistant district attorney will leave prosecuting behind to join Hatcher Stubbs, a Columbus law firm that is among the oldest in the state.

She has earned a reputation as a good litigator. A week ago she secured the convictions of Shaquille Porter and Dequandrea Truitt in a high-profile 2013 Columbus murder case at the Majestic Sports Bar.

In an interview with reporter Chuck Williams, Moore talks about that case, the frustrating situation surrounding a lack of eyewitnesses and a lot more.

Here are excerpts of that interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

The Ledger-Enquirer is trying to interview people in the community who are interesting and have interesting roles in our community.

I am honored to be considered interesting.

Last week you won a murder case that lasted almost two weeks. It was the murder of Charles Foster Jr. How difficult was that case to try?

It was about as difficult as they come. We didn’t have a whole lot of witnesses knocking down our doors to give us information. And we didn’t have a whole lot of witnesses cooperating. Up until the end of the trial, we were trying to determine if we could successfully prosecute it.

Was there thought of making a plea deal?

Yes. And we were concerned about whether witnesses were going to take the stand and testify. The morning of the trial we filed a motion to keep the media out. That was because witnesses I had spoken to were concerned. They didn’t have a problem testifying, but they were concerned about their picture being in the paper, their faces being on the news. It is because they live in this community and were afraid of retaliation. They understood if they were going to be a witness, you have to come to court and take the stand. It was just the widespread broadcast of their identities they were concerned about.

You got up on your closing argument and you told the jury why your case was weak. You called it the “code of silence.” What were you trying to do?

In case the jury got back in the jury room and began to deliberate and say, “We don’t want to convict on the word of one witness.” Well, this is the reason why there is only one eyewitness. I wanted the jury not only to consider what she said, but what she was putting at risk by coming in here and saying it. And I wanted them to consider why we didn’t have another witness. From the very beginning I had to show what we were dealing with. They told the responding patrol officers they didn’t know anything, they didn’t see anything. They were mad because people were being put in patrol cars and taken down to headquarters. They were giving fake names. People who had been shot were not even talking.

You used the phrase “deaf, dumb and blind to gunfire.”

That came to me in interviewing one of the detectives who responded. His exact words were everybody was “deaf, dumb and blind.” It just amazes me. Why? Why would people not say anything? Why would people not help police? To me it is obvious the reason why.

Define the “code of silence.”

To me, from my experience prosecuting, the code of silence means that you don’t tell on someone else. If you want to tell on yourself, then tell on yourself. But you don’t tell on anyone else.

Do you understand it?

Does it make sense to me? No. Do I understand it? Kind of. This is not the first case where we have had to deal with the code of silence — people not snitching. This is not novel to Columbus and this is not novel to my case. People live in fear. Especially if you live in the same areas where the perpetrators live. Most of the time it’s going to be a local incident. Their relatives still live there. Your relatives still live there. They live in fear there is going to be a retaliation if they talk. You are talking about a community where they see each other on a daily basis.

In that courtroom, it appeared to be worse to be a snitch than to be the shooter. Is that accurate?

I would agree with that. I think there is honor in not snitching. And in the criminal culture, I think the only thing worse than a snitch is a child molester.

Honor system?

(Laughter). Now, I am not a criminal, but that is my perception of the criminal culture. You don’t snitch. I promise you, if you go into the jail or the prison system and interview people about snitching, what you would come out with is, “You don’t snitch. You don’t snitch.”

You said in your closing argument that if the shooting had happened in the Publix on Macon Road witnesses would have been lined up out the door. Why did you use that grocery store?

There was no particular reason. … There is no other way to say it. In certain communities, that type of crime would not be tolerated. And then you have other areas — it is not like they want the crime there — but not snitching and being quiet overrides “Let’s get who committed this crime.”

Is it race or poverty?

I don’t know. That is a good question. Maybe poverty? That is a good question and I don’t know that I have the answer.

How do you deal with unexpected changes during a trial? For example, in the last trial, the victim’s girlfriend Laquoia Arnold finishes her testimony and a couple of days later you have defense attorney Stacey Jackson bringing in three cell mates who said they saw her laughing and joking about her testimony.

We did not expect that. The thing about the trial is it was a group effort. As soon as we got information that is what they were going to bring in, Mr. (Alonza) Whitaker and our investigator went to the jail and interviewed those people and anyone else who may have heard the same thing or something different. We worked right away to see if we could find evidence to rebut that or some type of explanation. You have to be ready. Preparation doesn’t just stop when the trial starts. That was a surprise. We were not expecting that.

What made you become an attorney?

I don’t know. The courtroom has always intrigued me. I like being about to argue and persuade people to a point of view.

In the last three years, you were on a short list for a Superior Court judgeship, you ran for a Superior Court judgeship and lost a six-county race. Do you still aspire to be a judge?

I do.

What makes you want to be a judge?

I have a genuine desire to serve. I have served the public basically almost the entire 16 years of my career. I think that my experience and my viewpoints certainly put me in a position to be able to serve. I think I have a lot to contribute to our system of justice.

What did you learn from your 2012 race against Judge Art Smith in which you lost?

I learned a lot. I have learned a lot about myself. You have to take chances. I understand I was taking a huge chance. But you have to take risks. I understand that I lost, but I won so much more. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about politics. I learned at the end of the day, people will ultimately look out for their own self-interests. And that means something different to everybody.

I also learned, when it comes to politics, you have to have a very short memory. You can’t carry things around in politics. It’s politics. You have to have thick skin. As a practical matter, I learned it is very difficult to challenge an incumbent judge. I think it is different from a school board, a city council or a state senator race because the issues in a judicial race are limited. And they are just not the kinds of issues that the public pays attention to or really cares about. Most people don’t even know who the Superior Court judges are. It is just a very, very difficult race.

Who are your mentors?

Retired Judge John Allen and Dorothy Williams, a local attorney.

How have Mrs. Williams and Judge Allen influenced you?

As far as the judicial position goes, I always aspired to being a judge, but I always thought judges are old. So, you think when I am winding down my career and I have all this wisdom and all this knowledge and all the experience, then it will be my time to be a judge. I think both of them helped me see that I was qualified now. To me, wisdom has nothing to do with age. Wisdom has to do with experience. You are ready now. Don’t discount yourself. Do not discount what you know, what you have learned and what you have been through. They helped me to see you are qualified, you are competent and you have a good reputation among your peers.

Last week, you tweeted from the prosecution table. When defense attorney Stacey Jackson got up for his closing, you tweeted that you were going to talk about the code of silence in your closing. You telegraphed what your argument was going to be. Have you gotten any feedback on that?

No feedback. I am in tune to social media. I follow a couple of the news stations’ Twitter feeds. I follow the Ledger’s Twitter feed. That helps keep me up to speed on a daily basis about what’s going on. I had made an attempt to start at the opening of the trial to tweet. But you get distracted. I didn’t have a chance to follow up. By the time closing arguments got here, the evidence was finished and I felt comfortable in what I wanted to say. You hope that the public is following a little bit. I just wanted to put it out there. … Of course not knowing if Stacey Jackson or Michael Eddings or anybody else associated with the case was on Twitter, I waited until Stacey got up. I was not about to put it out there beforehand and give him an opportunity to deal with it before I said it.

How is social media going to change the legal profession?

I am a news junkie. When I am at home, I am on CNN all day. I like to know what is going on, up to the minute. We all have seen how social media changes news when people are in a position to get a video with their cell phone, a picture, or to be first on the scene. That spreads instantly. That affects the way people perceive cases or news, as opposed to having to wait to get information at the end of something.

But how does it change the legal profession?

Maybe it will engage people more.

What are some of the things you do when you are not working 14-hour days in trial?

When I am not working 14-hour days, I am a mom. Being a mom is full-time. When I am not working, I am usually chauffeuring around my son to his activities. He plays basketball, he plays soccer and he is involved in school plays.

I try and stay active in the community. I am president of my sorority — Delta Sigma Theta. We are heavily community service oriented. I serve on a couple of boards in the community. What I like to do most when I have the time is read and travel.

You were not raised in Columbus. Where were you raised?

I was raised in Kansas City. I also spent a portion of time in California, as well. San Francisco. My parents divorced very early and my mother lived in California. I was there for several years. My father lived in Kansas City, and I was there also.

So, 49ers or Chiefs?

I am a Chiefs fan. Absolutely. Not so much 49ers... I like the Falcons, I like all of the Georgia teams. I am a Braves fan. We usually try and go to Braves games. We also try and go to Falcons games. In the NBA, I am a Lakers fan — I like to see good competition. I followed the Olympics. In college, I am a (Kansas) Jayhawk fan.

Growing up in Kansas City, I guess you like barbecue?

Absolutely.

Is it as good here as it is in Kansas City?

I think it is probably better here. I had to get used to that whole chipped barbecue thing and that whole Brunswick stew thing. I was like, “What is this?” And the whole mustard-based sauce thing.

Talk a little about Columbus. Is this your home now?

I have been in Georgia 21 or 22 years now. I went to law school at Mercer. I like it. Columbus has been good to me. It has been the perfect place to be able to thrive professionally. It is not too terribly small. And it is not too big that you get lost.

I have been able to develop some very meaningful professional relationships and some friendships. It has been the perfect place for me. It is a great place to raise a family. I like the South. It is definitely a different culture than living in the Midwest or the West Coast. In those places people don’t care where you are from. You come to the South and they want to know your entire life history. “Who are your people?” I am like, “Why?”

You are leaving the District Attorney’s Office for local law firm Hatcher Stubbs, which doesn’t do a lot of criminal defense work. What are you going to be doing?

My plan is to get out of criminal — to do the occasional criminal case. But I not intend to have a criminal defense practice. I hope to be doing some medical malpractice defense, some employment litigation defense, maybe some plaintiff personal injury work or any litigation needs of the firm. I am a litigator at heart and I like being in the courtroom. That is what I am good at.

That is a gear shift you don’t see a lot of attorneys make, right?

It is. It is still basically litigation. Sure, there will be a learning curve. But it is not impossible. The fundamental things such as practicing in court, motion practicing, arguing, rules of evidence, that is not difficult. That is pretty much the same. There is just a learning curve, but I don’t expect it to be difficult to overcome.

Have you ever been in private practice before?

I was in private practice when I first graduated from law school. That is what brought me here. I was able to find a job with a local law firm — I was with Joe Wiley. I did a lot criminal defense, but I also did a lot of plaintiff’s personal injury litigation and did some domestic. It has been a long time. I did it from 1995-1999.

When is your last day in the DA’s office?

I don’t have an exact last day. I suspect it will be sometime in the beginning of July. I am working a case load and there are some things I want to wind up before I leave.

BIO

Age: 43

Job: Senior Assistant District Attorney, Muscogee County; has accepted a position as a partner with Hatcher Stubbs and starts in July.

Education: Northeast High School, Kansas City; University of Missouri, Kansas City, 1992; Mercer University, Walter F. George School of Law, 1995

Family: Single; Son, Robert "Trey" Moore III; daughter of Lowell Dixon of Kansas City and Cheryl Franklin of Sacramento, Calif.

An avid reader: "I am currently reading two things I go back and forth. 'Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power' by John Meacham. And I am also reading 'No Higher Honor' by Condoleezza Rice. I started reading Thomas Jefferson first, then a friend gave me Condoleezza Rice's book. It ended up being ironic. She was secretary of state, and he was the first secretary of state. I like biographies. I like reading about how successful people became successful. Both of them are interesting to me because they are both political. Having run for office, that just interests me."

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