ATLANTA — Three years ago, Ruby Freeman was on the phone with a friend when a Facebook message popped up from a woman she didn’t know. It was a reporter who wanted to interview her.
“And I’m like interview me for what?” Freeman told congressional investigators.
She found out soon enough. Earlier that day, at the Georgia Capitol, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, had showed state legislators security footage of ballot counting at State Farm Arena. Giuliani said — falsely — it showed evidence of voter fraud. In the video were Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss.
As she learned what was happening, Freeman’s phone began to blow up.
“I think I need an attorney,” she messaged the reporter.
It would mark the start of a terrifying journey. As Giuliani’s story spread, strangers harassed Freeman by phone and at her home, eventually forcing her to flee. They also targeted Moss, and her 14-year-old son with racist harassment and death threats.
Next week, Freeman and Moss may finally face Giuliani in court.
A judge has already found Giuliani liable for defaming them. Next week a federal jury in Washington will consider how much he should pay the the two women for spreading some of the most pernicious lies about the 2020 presidential election. They are seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages.
The lawsuit is one in a constellation of libel cases arising from false claims about the 2020 election. Legal experts say sizable verdicts could deter efforts to delegitimize future American elections.
“I think it will be an assessment by the legal system that manipulating elections has very real consequences,” said Gerry Weber, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment law. He said jurors in such cases “have a larger corrective function to play in a democracy.”
The Giuliani trial also could shed light on the election interference criminal cases against former President Donald Trump in Georgia and Washington. And it could reverberate in next year’s presidential election, in which Trump is seeking to regain the White House while fighting the criminal charges.
Ted Goodman, a political advisor to Giuliani, blasted the lawsuit and U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, who is overseeing it.
“The judges’ biases and prejudices are well known and have been demonstrated throughout this case and many others — where the process is the punishment,” Goodman said. “In the fullness of time, this will be looked at as a dark chapter in America’s justice system as this whole process is doing great, irreparable harm.”
Lawyers for Freeman and Moss say next week’s trial can begin to compensate them for the “defamatory smear campaign” Giuliani organized against them.
“While nothing will fully repair all of the damage that Giuliani and his allies wreaked on our clients’ lives, livelihoods and security, they are eager and ready for their day in court to continue their fight for accountability and amends,” the lawyers said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Not a ‘smoking gun’
Freeman and Moss were the unwitting stars of Giuliani’s campaign to convince Georgia legislators to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.
The footage Giuliani played at that Dec. 3, 2020, legislative hearing showed workers pulling ballots from beneath a table and counting them late at night – and that’s all. But Giuliani spun a wild tale of voting fraud.
He and other Trump attorneys said the workers illegally sent Republican Party observers home under the false pretense that counting was done for the night. They said the workers then pulled “suitcases” of illegal ballots from beneath a table and counted some of them multiple times.
Giuliani called it a “smoking gun” for voting fraud. It was not.
Investigators from the secretary of state, the GBI and the FBI reviewed hours of footage – not just the snippets Giuliani played for lawmakers. They interviewed the election workers, their supervisors and the Republican observers. The investigators concluded nothing improper happened.
The Republican observers left on their own — nobody told them to go. The “suitcases” were standard ballot containers. And some ballots were rescanned because a scanner jammed, but they were only counted once.
The State Election Board formally dismissed the fraud allegations last summer. But state election officials debunked them the next day and repeatedly in the weeks ahead.
That didn’t stop Giuliani, Trump and others from repeating the allegations. In fact, records released by congressional investigators last year show Giuliani and the Trump campaign used the State Farm Arena video as the centerpiece of a campaign to pressure Georgia lawmakers to overturn Biden’s victory.
Giuliani didn’t identify Freeman and Moss by name during the initial legislative hearing. But in the weeks ahead he repeatedly targeted them personally.
On his podcast, he said Freeman “has a history of voter fraud participation” (she does not). On the conservative media outlet One America News he accused Freeman and Moss of “handing off small, hard drives and flash drives” (Moss later testified her mother handed her a ginger mint ).
Giuliani likened the election workers to drug dealers and said they had “gotten away scot-free.”
Trump spread the allegations on social media. And in an infamous January 20201 phone call, Trump cited Freeman’s name 19 times as he tried to convince Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the 11,780 votes he needed to defeat Biden.
“She’s a voter scammer, a professional vote scammer and hustler, Ruby Feeman,” Trump told Raffensperger.
Death threats for ‘treason’
Freeman and Moss began receiving threats almost immediately after Giuliani unveiled the video.
Freeman sought police help, and an officer answered more than 20 harassing calls to her cell phone, according to the lawsuit. Strangers began knocking on her door. When she refused to answer, they sometimes harassed her neighbors.
Unordered pizzas began arriving at Freeman’s home, the lawsuit said. Some people mailed harassing Christmas cards – “you deserve to go to jail, you worthless piece of (expletive) whore,” someone wrote.
The day before the attack on the Capitol, a crowd surrounded Freeman’s home – some people carried bullhorns.
But Freeman had already fled on the advice of the FBI. She didn’t return for two months. She also shuttered her clothing business.
Moss also endured months of harassment. According to the lawsuit, she received dozens of social media messages threatening violence. Some suggested she should lose her job and would be killed for her “treason.” She eventually left her county election job.
Moss’ 14-year-old son also received threats on an old phone Moss had given him. According to the lawsuit, he was bombarded by threats and racial slurs. One caller said he “should hang alongside (his) (racial epithet) momma.”
Twice strangers tried to barge into Moss’ grandmother’s house, where Moss used to live. They were trying to make “citizens’ arrests.”
Freeman and Moss were on the “death list” of a man convicted for his role in the Jan. 6 attack. They still receive threats.
At a recent hearing in the Georgia criminal case, attorney Von DuBose testified that social media comments by defendant Harrison Floyd – accused of trying to pressure Freeman to admit to voting fraud she didn’t commit – led to increased online threats against her.
And last week defendant Trevian Kutti appeared to refer to Freeman during a live Instagram video. “There’s a woman sitting somewhere who knows that I’m going to (expletive) her whole life up when this is done,” Kutti said.
Freeman and Moss still fear for their lives.
“Like her mother, Ms. Moss is now fearful whenever people recognize her on public …” the lawsuit said. “She feels trapped by the unshakeable fear that there are unknown people after her who want her dead.”
A dramatic trial
Freeman and Moss filed the lawsuit two years ago in U.S. District Court in Washington, seeking damages for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. One America News originally was a co-defendant but settled with the election workers last year.
Giuliani sought to have the lawsuit dismissed. But Howell, the judge, rejected that request, saying a reasonable jury could conclude that Giuliani, Trump and others “created a plan to sow doubt in the outcome of the 2020 election by launching a misinformation campaign” that injured Freeman and Moss.
The plaintiffs spent much of the last year trying to obtain evidence from Giuliani that could shed light on his actions. But he repeatedly failed to turn over evidence, ignoring court orders to do so.
Citing Giuliani’s “willful” refusal to turn over documents, Howell issued a default judgment finding him liable for defamation. She also has ordered him to pay $237,113 for the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.
Now jurors must decide how much Giuliani, who has been beset by legal woes and struggled to pay his lawyers, owes in damages. Freeman and Moss are seeking $15.5 million to $43 million in compensatory damages, plus unspecified damages for emotional distress and punitive damages to deter Giuliani’s “outrageous conduct” in the future.
The trial could be dramatic, with Freeman, Moss and Giuliani expected to testify. Weber, the First Amendment lawyer, believes it also could offer a preview of the state and federal criminal cases – which include charges related to the false fraud allegations against Freeman and Moss.
“I think it’s going to be a crystal ball into how a criminal jury is going to consider some of the overlapping evidence,” Weber said.
The outcome also could signal whether the judicial system will continue to hold people accountable for false voting fraud claims. Surveys show most Republicans believe the claims.
Freeman and Moss have another pending defamation lawsuit against the conservative Gateway Pundit. And Dominion Voting Systems – which won a whopping $787.5 million settlement from Fox News last spring – has filed numerous lawsuits over false claims that its equipment flipped votes to Biden. Among the defendants: Giuliani and attorney Sidney Powell, who also pleaded guilty recently in the Georgia criminal case.
Clare Norins, director of the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law, said successful defamation cases could provide a needed corrective to the false claims.
“If we can’t put the genie back in the bottle for 2020,” Norins said, “at least these lawsuits can try to stave off similar attacks on future election results.”
Goodman, Giuliani’s spokesman, objected to “the weaponization of our justice system against political opponents.
“Because, while it may be President Trump, Mayor Giuliani and others you disagree with politically today, it could be you and the people who share your beliefs tomorrow,” he said.