Scenes from a Marriage
It was about five hours into his father's trial when the question of what a sobbing Jeffrey Moon had told Missouri City police dispatcher Kelly Fantach was raised again.
This time, it wasn't the substance of what the seven-year-old boy had said that was before the court. Rusty Hardin, the lawyer for Warren Moon, had already established that Warren and Felicia Moon's youngest child never informed the dispatcher that his father had actually hit his mother.
What Hardin now wanted to know was whether Fantach believed Jeffrey had said "My daddy gonna hit my mommy" or "My daddy is going to hit my mommy" after the Moons' Spanish-speaking housekeeper handed him the phone on the afternoon of July 18.
Wasn't it, Hardin queried Fantach, just "one more racial thing" lurking there on the transcript the Fort Bend County District Attorney's Office had prepared of the 911 call placed from 1 Lakeside Estates? What Jeffrey clearly had said, Hardin argued, was "is going to."
I guess I'm just too dull-witted and insensitive, but it hadn't occurred to me until that point that hearing an obviously distressed seven-year-old say "gonna hit" might be suggestive of the "mindset," as Hardin put it, of authorities predisposed to assume the guilt of an innocent black man.
It is certainly possible that Hardin was correct: white people, and I can attest to this from personal experience, are capable of doing all sorts of stupid, condescending things, most of them unconsciously. On the other hand, several courtroom playings of the scratchy tape of the 911 call seemed to confirm that the transcript's rendering of "gonna hit" was legitimate. And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't expect precise diction to be his overriding concern if it were my young son on the phone to police. I'd be happy if he would have the presence of mind to squeeze out a complete sentence -- subject, verb, direct object -- as Jeffrey Moon did.
Perhaps Hardin's line of argument, which went no further after Fantach shrugged that it sounded like "gonna hit" to her, was all the lawyer's idea. He had already played the -- pardon me -- race card by citing another "racial thing" in the transcript of the police radio traffic that followed the 911 call from the Moons' housekeeper. That was a comment made by a Missouri City cop, unidentified on the transcript, who declared, "I saw a white Bronco," after patrolmen were notified that Felicia Moon had left her house in a white Lexus and Warren Moon was following in an unidentified vehicle.
Dispatcher Fantach -- who obligingly fingered the vile quipster for Hardin as a "Sergeant Crissman" -- agreed with the lawyer that it was a dumb, uncalled-for remark. Prosecutor Mike Elliott made sure that the three African-Americans on the six-member jury knew that he, too, considered it despicable. The looks on the faces of wincing spectators made it unanimous: it was dumb!
But even dumber was the spectacle of Hardin -- whose number should definitely be in your Rolodex if you're a celebrity expecting criminal charges -- puffing himself into a righteous snit over Sergeant Crissman's commentary. It was a "blatant racist comment," Hardin thundered, since the only similarities between Warren Moon and O.J. Simpson is that they are both "black African-American sports heroes" (as opposed to white African-American ones, I guess). Out of earshot of the jury, the lawyer called it "one of the most outrageous pieces of evidence I can imagine in this kind of case." You'd have thought he'd turned up a tape of one of the Missouri City cops using the N-word 40-something times.
But later, as he did his evening spin for the media, even Hardin was hard-pressed to precisely explain the relevance of the remark, as Sergeant Crissman wasn't involved in the investigation at 1 Lakeside Estates beyond his weak stab at humor. And thereafter, the white Bronco also mercifully disappeared from the trial of the State of Texas v. Harold Warren Moon Jr.
That was a salutary development, since it would have been a far stretch to argue that what was transpiring in County Court At-Law No. 1 was about race. What seemed to be the overriding issue in the trial of Warren Moon was appearances -- how they're hard to keep up, and how they sometimes can be deceiving.
The imperative of maintaining a composed and unsullied public face was a consistent thread in the version of events offered by both Hardin and Felicia Moon, who, contrary to appearances, was not Hardin's client. That's why, even if the "gonna hit" point of contention was Hardin's idea, it's easy to imagine Felicia Moon's being piqued by the notion that somebody might think her little boy had mangled his grammar. After she took the stand last Friday at the D.A.'s behest, Felicia Moon noted matter-of-factly -- and with a total absence of arrogance -- how she had corrected a number of grammatical and spelling errors that Missouri City detective Andi Wiltse had typed into the statement Mrs. Moon gave to police on July 18. She had been an English major, Felicia Moon said. It was her training.
During Wiltse's testimony, the detective indicated that one of Felicia Moon's primary concerns that day was whether the media would learn that the police had been dispatched to her home on a domestic disturbance call. Wiltse acknowledged that she had assured Mrs. Moon that nobody outside of the police station would learn of the incident if she didn't press charges against her husband.
Mrs. Moon, Wiltse related, "was very self-conscious about her appearance" as she sat in the Missouri City police station. Felicia Moon later testified that before she posed for pictures that an officer took of her injuries, she asked, "Does that mean this is gonna be on the news tomorrow?"
As it turned out, those pictures of the way Felicia Moon's face, neck and legs appeared on July 18 wouldn't be on the news until months later, when 16-inch-by-20-inch blowups of the color photos were entered into evidence at her husband's trial.
In his cross-examination of Wiltse, Hardin repeatedly asked the detective whether she'd like it if similar pictures of herself were displayed for the prying media and public.
Wiltse said she wouldn't mind.
"Do you ever have a bad hair day?" persisted Hardin, pointing to the close-up of Felicia Moon's face. "Do you think the average person would like pictures like this of themselves shown all over national TV?"
Wiltse coolly replied that she couldn't speak for the average person, but no, she herself wouldn't mind.
The detective didn't have to add that the scratches and marks on Felicia Moon suggested she was having something other than a bad hair day.
I went to the courthouse in Richmond in hope of resolving the ambivalence I felt about the state's forcing Felicia Moon to testify against her husband. As you may have heard, as of last September, "spousal privilege" giving a wife the right not to testify against her husband is no longer honored in domestic abuse cases in Texas. In the past, a wife could not be compelled to testify against her husband -- or vice versa. Now, if prosecutors so choose, she has no choice.
Since the new law went into effect, successful prosecutions of spousal abuse charges in Harris County have increased from around 50 percent to 75 percent, according to Cindy Merrill, the head of the district attorney's domestic violence unit, even though prosecutors have yet to force a reluctant woman to testify against her husband.
As it happened -- not wholly by coincidence, we can assume -- the state's first major use of the new law was in a case involving a celebrity and his wife. Merrill can understand why some people might be ambivalent about the law's application in the Moon case, but it's not a feeling she shares.
"Family crimes by their nature are messy," says Merrill, "but who caused the mess?"
According to Rusty Hardin and Felicia Moon, it was Felicia Moon who caused the mess at 1 Lakeside Estates last summer. Sort of.
Prior to her taking the witness stand, Felicia Moon had never told that side of the story, to either the cops or the prosecutors.
They never asked, she explained.
According to Hardin, a former Harris County prosecutor, that omission made Fort Bend County's case "wrongheaded" and "tragically flawed," an unwarranted intrusion by the state into Felicia and Warren Moon's personal life.
Most people I talked to seemed to fall somewhere between Cindy Merrill and Rusty Hardin's view of the state's dragging Felicia Moon to the stand to testify. Yes, domestic abuse is dead-serious and too widespread, but E.
Women whom I asked -- and I guess most of them could be vaguely characterized as feminists -- were far from unanimous on the question. Hardin, who doesn't miss a trick, seized on some of the incongruity when he denounced women who favor "choice" but had been critical of Felicia Moon's choosing not to voluntarily speak against her husband.
Combine that moral quandary with the other issues likely to come into play -- the meaning of "family values," the prerogatives of celebrity, and yes, even race -- and the Moon trial held the promise of weighty stuff, if not out-and-out tragedy. But as so often is the case, what appears from a distance to be tragic turns out to be, when viewed up close, merely farcical.
Especially in a courtroom.
The first thing you noticed about the Moon trial, and it probably wasn't lost on the jury, was that the alleged victim was sitting about three feet behind the defendant and occasionally exchanging glances with him that could only be described as affectionate.
Aside from the large media contingent, there were plenty of other indications that this was a case unrivaled in the annals of Fort Bend misdemeanors since the trial of that undertaker who dumped the corpse at the front door of the decedent's son. Among the regular spectators was the mother of District Attorney John Healey, who was visiting from Connecticut. She watched her son intently as he watched his two assistants handle the courtroom footwork.
"This is really interesting," the D.A.'s mom confided.
And it had gotten more interesting after the jurors returned from a recess to find Clyde Drexler sitting with the Warren and Felicia Moon entourage and gazing directly at the jury box. (Several of the jurors reportedly were so influenced by Drexler's beatific presence that they drove over to Bill Heard Chevrolet that night and bought new cars.)
When the moment the media, John Healey's mom and Clyde Drexler had all been waiting for finally arrived, Felicia Moon took the stand and proceeded to tell a story that, until we got to what was supposed to be the dramatic denouement of her narrative, sounded like the plot to a lost episode of The Honeymooners, if Ralph and Alice had been wealthy and incredibly good-looking, had four kids and a Salvadoran housekeeper, and had actually carried out those "one of these days" threats they barked at each other all the time.
As the Kramdens often used to do, the Moons were arguing about money.
Felicia's story opened shortly after noon on Tuesday, July 18, when three of her four children were away at camp in San Antonio. She had just returned from the dentist with Jeffrey (who had gotten a shot there -- maybe another reason "is going to" didn't come through clearly) and had repaired to her back yard gazebo for the afternoon session of her two-a-day half-hour Bible studies.
Mr. Moon showed up shortly. He had spent the night away from home, Mrs. Moon related, and she didn't know where and didn't ask (okay, here's where the Honeymooners analogy breaks down). Anyway, without so much as a howdy-do, the Moons picked up where they had left off arguing on the previous Sunday -- subject left unspecified by Mrs. Moon. Whatever that debate was over, the issue before the heads of the Moon household on Tuesday quickly became money, and it was an issue that Mr. Moon was looking to resolve before he left the following weekend for Vikings training camp. He told Mrs. Moon she was spending too much, and he demanded all her credit cards back so he could combine all future spending-by-plastic on just a single card, a VISA Gold.
Mrs. Moon testified she wasn't about to give up her credit cards, at least not without a fight.
"You are such a jerk -- I can't stand you," she said she angrily told her skinflint husband. Ever cool, just as he remained behind the Oilers' sagging offensive line, Mr. Moon observed, "Okay, this is getting out of hand E." The dispute accelerated quickly from there, according to Mrs. Moon.
At some point in the quarrel, and it was unclear from her testimony at exactly which point, Felicia Moon was in fear and kept repeating, "Jesus just help me, Jesus just help me." Then her testimony turned even more confusing: what was making her afraid, she seemed to say, was the prospect of really losing her temper. She had learned in therapy to watch for those "signals." But there was another reason for her fear: "I thought that he might hit me," she said of her husband.
Why? asked the prosecutor.
"Because it's happened before," Felicia Moon replied.
In later testimony, however, the former English major said her husband really hadn't ever hit her -- it was more "pushing and shoving" and "brushing against" her.
Whatever the case, the argument on July 18 quickly moved from the back yard to the couple's bedroom. Warren Moon went to his closet and started packing to spend another night out. Felicia Moon went to a drawer where she kept what she described as her "excess" credit cards. "I said 'Here's your fuckin' credit cards,' " she testified, "and I threw 'em at him."
He said, "Thank you," which so irritated Mrs. Moon that she stormed into the bathroom, grabbed a good-sized candleholder, and, proving that unerring aim runs in the family, hurled it directly into Mr. Moon's back. "He stood up and said, 'You bitch, are you crazy?' " Mrs. Moon recounted. "I knew I had hit my mark."
Felicia Moon said she then tried to scramble out the bedroom door, but her husband ran her down and grabbed her by her dress, whereupon she wheeled around and kneed him in the groin. In doing so, she tripped and fell backward and ended up on the floor, where her husband grabbed her, told her "she was losing control" and tried to rein in her flailing arms and legs. Part of the calming process also involved Mr. Moon's raising his hand to hit her and hollering, "Stop it! Stop it!" but he didn't carry through, she said. In trying to bring her under control, Felicia Moon testified, her husband also pressed on her throat, but when she began coughing and he realized he was choking her -- she's an asthmatic -- he let off.
That gave Mrs. Moon another opportunity to make a break for it. She was off and running again, but once again, her husband grabbed her, once again she ended up on the floor, once again her arms and legs were flailing and once again Warren Moon was trying to bring her under control.
"I was reaching for him -- we both tried to grab each other," was the way Mrs. Moon described it as she got down on the floor of the courtroom with prosecutor Elliott and demonstrated.
But Felicia Moon was not to be brought under control. She ran to the front door and he ran to the laundry room to confiscate her car keys. From there, the argument/chase continued on the street outside, where, Mr. Moon testified, she was "not so much scared as combat-ready."
Somehow, then, Mrs. Moon next ended up in her Lexus on Lake Olympia Parkway and then Highway 6, with Mr. Moon following in his Lexus. Although one eyewitness estimated their speeds at close to 90 mph, Felicia Moon says her Lexus never got over 75. Finally, she lost Mr. Moon and drove to a Dairy Queen to call a friend before returning home to find that her housekeeper had summoned the police.
And that was pretty much her story. At no time did she say her husband had actually hit her that day. Those scratches and bruises that were clearly visible in the photos might have been self-inflicted, she said.
After Elliott had finished with Felicia Moon, Hardin stepped up to elicit that dramatic denouement from his client's wife.
It seems the district attorney had unearthed a 1986 divorce petition Felicia Moon had lodged in which she claimed that Warren Moon had physically attacked her on three occasions -- including two days before the divorce filing, when he "beat her with closed fists in the presence of the children." The suit was never pursued and was dismissed the following year. Felicia Moon told Hardin she was "outraged" when she learned the prosecution might use the suit during her husband's trial, because it would bring up "a time in my life I would rather not remember."
It was a time in her life, she said, when she had been "diagnosed with an illness," which she later referred to even more elliptically as "the very dark secret from my past."
What happened last year, she continued, "was djà vu of what happened ten years before. I had already drove a car in the midst of anger, and smashed into a brick wall."
And so, on July 18, her husband didn't intend to hurt her, she testified.
"I'm thinking he was trying to keep me from injuring myself -- trying to keep me from smashing into another brick wall."
Following Felicia Moon's first day on the stand, Rusty Hardin called her the most compelling witness he'd seen in his 20 years of practicing law. Nobody could watch her performance, he added, and come away thinking that she was anything but a strong, independent woman who thinks and does for herself.
Inarguably, that was the impression left by Felicia Moon. She was smart, funny and self-possessed, and she consistently got the better of it with prosecutor Elliott.
But the story Felicia Moon told so confidently said something else entirely: that she's a fragile, perhaps unsound woman who can't control her emotions or her spending, a woman who needs her husband to keep her in line, wherever he had been the night before.
That's okay. Felicia Moon certainly is under no obligation to you, me or the battered women of the world to be anybody but who she wants to be. Her critics, she said, "want me to be something that I'm not, and I don't want to let them do that to me."
On the other hand, I must concede, the Fort Bend County district attorney was under no obligation to confirm Felicia Moon's conception of herself and her marriage. Somebody called the cops. There was evidence of an assault. The law now allows the state to force a woman a testify against her husband. The D.A.'s office used it.
In the end, though, the prosecution obviously was not well-served by the new law. Even though the state, as of this writing, had yet to rest its case, it's difficult to imagine any jury convicting Warren Moon on the evidence that had been presented. Hardin was so confident that he vowed to jump off of the Empire State Building if the jury found against his client.
At the same time Felicia Moon was on the stand testifying in Fort Bend County, a Harris County jury convicted Agustin Vera of a misdemeanor assault, the same charge Warren Moon faces. Vera was accused of hitting his common-law wife 15 times as they argued on the shoulder of the Eastex Freeway last November 2.
Both of Irma Ventura's eyes were blackened. Her nose was swollen and her lips were split. She told police that Vera beat her because he was jealous that she worked. But after charges were filed, Ventura grew reluctant to pursue the case. She asked that the charges be dropped, then evaded a subpoena to testify against her husband at this trial.
The district attorney's office tried the charge anyway, and considered the conviction to be a small but significant victory, since, as prosecutor Drew Cozby notes, "usually it's impossible to proceed without a victim." Cozby says that on the morning of his trial, Vera was overheard talking with his wife from a pay phone in the courthouse hallway.
The defendant argued self-defense. There were no media or big-shot lawyers present. It took the jury nine minutes to return a verdict, and then the judge sentenced Vera to the maximum year in jail.
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