Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 31, 2020

An ethical obligation to ‘raise hell’

Moore proud to do whatever it takes to defend any criminal client

Criminal defense attorney Steven Moore says the public’s perception of him is largely negative, but he’s at peace with his work because he has a role to fill, just like the prosecutors, judges and jurors. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County

Criminal defense attorney Steven Moore says some lawyers don’t like him because they think judges let him get away with what they can’t.

While representing a client in the Athens Park Bloods racketeering case last year, Moore says the way he went toe-to-toe with Judge Tom Greenholtz shocked some of the other defense lawyers with clients in the case.

“John Cavett and I were the only ones going at it with the judge, and some of the younger attorneys said, ‘I can’t believe you talk to him that way,’” recalls Moore, 57. “I said, ‘I can’t believe you don’t. This is a serious case.’”

Moore says there’s a simple reason for what others perceive as his special treatment: Respect.

“When I walk into a judge’s courtroom, he knows I’m prepared, so he probably gives me more leeway,” Moore postulates in a smooth Southern drawl. “I don’t break any laws or violate our ethical code, so the judge lets me be a little more aggressive with a witness because he sees where I’m going.

“If you want to do criminal defense work, you have to be like the Bobby Lee Cooks, Bill Ortweins and Leroy Phillips of the world,” Moore continues, invoking the names of old-school criminal defense lawyers with a reputation for fiery advocacy. “Leroy would cuss a judge in open court.”

Mentored by Ortwein in the 90s, Moore saw not just how to raise hell in a courtroom but how much hell an attorney can raise.

Since then, he’s often exceeded a judge’s grace. One held him in contempt when he had a client’s young daughter sit in the courtroom during a murder trial. When the girl began to cry, the judge accused Moore of trying to sway the jury.

Although the judge rescinded his finding of contempt, Moore was unable to shake off another contempt ruling when he repeatedly asked a witness in a murder trial if she was high just before seeing the killing. Although the woman eventually admitted she was, the judge was displeased with Moore’s persistence against a sustained objection.

“The judge has probably called me down, told me to stop a line of questioning, or otherwise warned me during every one of my trials over the last 25 years,” Moore admits.

When this happens, he offers a stock reply.

“I’ll say, ‘Judge, I know I don’t need to remind the court, but the beginning of our ethical code uses the term “zealous advocate.” I take that term to heart. I’m supposed to stand here and raise hell.’”

That said, Moore insists he’s not a brazen maverick, but is respectful of the judge in every case.

“I have a legal and ethical obligation to represent my client, which often results in heated objections from prosecutors and heated debates with judges,” he clarifies. “But I am never intentionally disrespectful. What some observers view as disrespect is simply a debate on an issue of law.”

Regardless, Moore claims he has a reputation on the street for being a bullfighter.

“Gang members and career criminals know getting caught and going to prison is part of the cost of doing business,” he explains. “But they won’t lie down, and they don’t want a lawyer who will lie down, either.

“And that’s fine with me. I’m not afraid to try any case. You can never know what those 12 people in the jury box are going to do. I tell some of my clients, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but they’ll know we were here.’”

Moore has raised hell on behalf of murder defendants, accused gang members, people indicted for selling drugs, alleged sex criminals and more, leading some of his friends to question how he’s able to do what he does.

“Some of my friends will say, ‘I can’t believe you walked that gangbanger. What if he kills someone?’ That’s not on me. I wasn’t in the room when the jury voted. If you have a gripe about how it ended, call the people who sat in that box and went behind a closed door and discussed the case and took a vote and came out and announced a unanimous verdict. I didn’t set him free; those 12 people did.”

It’s not that Moore lacks a conscience, he simply has a job to do, he says.

“My client might have confessed, or his crime might be on video, or the prosecutors might have the murder weapon, and his fingerprints are all over it, but he’s still entitled to a defense, and it’s my job to give him the best defense I can.”

Moore’s efforts to provide a client with his best possible work begins with a single question: “What led to you being arrested for this crime?”

It does not begin with – nor does Moore ever ask – “Did you do it?”

“I say, ‘I’m not here to judge you. You’re going to have to answer for your conduct in front of 12 people, but ultimately, your judgement will come from God, not me.’

“If you can’t say that, then get out of criminal court and go separate pots and pans or be a tax lawyer. There’s too much at stake.”

Even when a defendant is not facing the death penalty, the potential costs are high, Moore says.

So is the toll a case can take on him. In the 2019 murder trial of Reginald Woods, who was charged with killing his girlfriend, Katrina Holloway, during an argument in 2017, Moore’s client faced a lengthy prison sentence.

During Woods’ two-year incarceration while awaiting trial, Moore had come to know his client personally and grown to like him. Moore says their meetings often turned into “BS” sessions, where they gabbed about everything but the trial.

Since Moore thought the evidence in Woods’ case suggested the shooting that killed Holloway was accidental, he says he believed he had a shot at winning. This, combined with him knowing Woods as a person, placed considerable stress on Moore.

Moore ultimately prevailed, but even after the release of the intense pressure that accompanied the case he continues to feel the disapproval of the victim’s family and general public.

“People judge folks like Reggie and judge folks like me that defend folks like Reggie, but that’s unfair,” he says. “Only three people knew what happened that night – Reggie, his former girlfriend and God.”

Moore has either assembled a good set of armor or was born wearing one because he claims arrows of condemnation bounce off him.

As an example, he mentions an incident which occurred during the trial of Donnie Hulett in 2004.

Moore represented Hulett, who was accused of robbing, beating and shooting brothers Larry and Arvine Phelps in 2002.

As Moore was walking to the lectern to cross-examine a witness, someone in the audience audibly referred to him using an expletive.

“I stopped and wondered, ‘Do I make a big deal of this or do I let it go?’ I stood there for five or 10 seconds and then decided I understood why they said that,” Moore recalls. “It’s like calling balls and strikes. Your skin has to be tough because people are going to say things about you.”

Moore says the public’s perception of him has bothered him only once – when his sons noticed it during the Hulett trial.

The local media covered the trial extensively, with every development in the case leading the newscasts on all four networks, Moore remembers. While spending time with his sons, who were 4 and 6 at the time, at Sir Goony’s Family Fun Center, Moore noticed people staring at him and whispering.

Eventually, one of his sons saw the attention people were giving them and became upset.

“That’s when I got mad,” Moore says. “You can think what you want to about me, and if you want to say something to me when I’m alone, that’s fine, but my boys ain’t got nothing to do with what I do for a living.”

Moore says his mother often expresses her displeasure of the media attention he receives, so he usually let’s her know when he’s going to appear in television.

“She’s very active in her church, all her little widow friends will call her and say, ‘Your son is on TV again representing those thugs.’ She’ll say, ‘I told him I wish he’d do something else, but you know how he is.’ So I usually warn her to be expecting some calls.”

When Moore thinks back on his cases, though, he tends to remember the ones in which he says he believes his work had a positive impact on his client’s life.

As an example, he describes the case of an 18-year-old Black man who was charged with several sexual offenses after his underage girlfriend’s grandfather learned about their relationship.

The young man had been raised in what Moore calls “a strict Christian home” and had met the 14-year-old white girl while at the University of Tennessee on a full academic scholarship. But, Moore says, he was not prepared to act responsibly and was drawn into an ill-advised relationship.

“He had no concept of what the world was like. Her text messages made the (district attorney) blush, as they did me, and that takes a lot,” Moore recalls.

Moore claims the grandfather’s racism was a factor in the arrest, as well. Regardless, his client faced dire consequences for his actions. So Moore went to the DA, argued that his client – not the girl – was the victim and suggested an unusual alternative.

“I said, “We’re going to do a pre-trial diversion, he’s going to move back to Nashville, and for two years, you won’t indict him,’” Moore recalls. “’And if he stays in school, maintains a C average and gets no new charges, you’ll dismiss and expunge the warrants.’”

The DA agreed.

“About three years later, his mom invited me to his wedding. A couple of years after that, she told me he was the president of a bank in Nashville and had two kids.”

The man’s mother also wrote, “We thank God for you every day, because if it wasn’t for you and what you did, my son might just now be getting out of prison.”

“Some people might say justice wasn’t served in that case, but he had a lawyer who fought for him and did something out of the box, and look how he ended up,” Moore says.

A Ft. Oglethorpe native, Moore didn’t grow up with aspirations of becoming a criminal defense attorney or representing clients in high profile cases. Instead, he became a lawyer because he had no other plans.

“I watched ‘Perry Mason’ as a kid and I remember when ‘Matlock’ was new and not in reruns,” Moore reminisces. “But when I was in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Searching for direction, Moore double majored in political science and economics at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He also took a number of undergraduate law classes.

“The professor asked if I was going to law school. I told him I’d never thought about it,” Moore says. “He said, ‘You’ve done well in my classes, and if you can get in, I believe you can get out.’ I didn’t have any other plans, so I said, ‘Why not?’”

Moore’s first taste of criminal law came as he worked as a prosecutor for the district attorney of Jefferson County during his third year at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.

“I handled the DUI docket,” Moore says. “Evidently, I made an impression on the DA, and the next thing I knew I was second chairing every murder case that went to trial.”

After law school, Moore came home and worked for Ortwein. While laboring under the auspices of the attorney and senator, he fell in love with criminal defense work.

“Bill was a great trial lawyer and a hell raiser, and he got a lot of high-profile stuff,” Moore points out. “He made me want to do this.”

Two years later, Moore started his own practice after Ortwein encouraged him to spread his wings and fly. “Bill liked to mentor young lawyers, but after two years, he’d kick you out of the nest so he could bring in someone else and mentor them.”

Moore’s experience in criminal court in Jefferson County led a judge in Whitfield County, Georgia, to appoint him as second chair in Georgia v Glenda Brown, a death penalty case, in 1999.

After Brown received a life sentence, Moore was placed on the short list for murder trials.

“I did my research, filed motions and showed up on time, so the judges trusted me,” Moore says. “If they had a bad case, they knew who to call.”

Eventually, Moore went from being on the short list to serving as the entire list.

Today, Moore practices out of his office on Broad Street, where he spends the bulk of the 60 to 70 hours a week he works. Although licensed in Tennessee and Georgia, he tries cases across the country – if someone has the money.

“I have a case pending in federal court in San Diego, but you have to have a thick wallet for that,” Moore says with a laugh.

Moore does fish in the spring, watch college football in the fall and spend time with his wife, Connie Moore, a local Realtor, but most of the time, he’s practicing law.

“When you’re my age, and your kids are grown and have lives of their own, and you can’t physically do much, you work.”

That’s OK, Moore insists, because he loves to be in a courtroom.

“Nobody except an old trial lawyer will understand that. Trying a case you have some hope of winning is a challenge, but if I can convince the jury to do what I think is right, then I’m going to impact that person’s life.

“And what greater satisfaction is there than helping better someone and their family?”