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Jury awards Rudy Giuliani defamation victims $148 million in trial over Georgia election conspiracy theory

Jacob Shamsian,Natalie Musumeci   

Jury awards Rudy Giuliani defamation victims $148 million in trial over Georgia election conspiracy theory
  • Jurors said Rudy Giuliani must pay Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss $148 million following a defamation trial.
  • Giuliani falsely claimed they rigged ballots in Georgia, which Donald Trump lost.

A federal jury agreed that Rudy Giuliani has wrought devastating damage to the lives of two Georgia election workers, deciding he owed them a whopping $148 million to help repair their lives and deter similar damage in the future.

The decision is yet another catastrophic legal setback for Giuliani, a man who was once heralded as one of the United States's most powerful and accomplished lawyers.

Jurors in the case came to a unanimous decision after about 10 hours of deliberation.

Damages the jury awarded to the election workers — Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea "Shaye" Moss — were broken down into compensatory damages, damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and punitive damages.

Both Freeman and Moss were awarded more than $16 million apiece in compensatory damages, $20 million each for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and $75 million in total for punitive damages.

After the jury's verdict was read, Giuliani doubled down on his unfounded conspiracy theory that Donald Trump, rather than now-President Joe Biden, was the true winner of the 2020 presidential election.

"I know that my country had a president imposed on it by fraud," he said. "These are not conspiracy theories these are facts."

"I don't regret a damn thing," Giuliani told reporters.

It is the first jury verdict in a defamation trial over Trump election lies.

An earlier, much larger lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News went through the jury selection process but settled at the eleventh hour, with the right-wing media network agreeing to pay $787.5 million.

Several other cases — including ones against farther-right media organizations One America News and Newsmax — have also settled, while others are hurtling toward their own trials.

But it is the trial against Giuliani, held in federal court in Washington, D.C., that perhaps best exemplifies both the personal harms of election conspiracy theories and just how starkly the theories cut against reality.

"This case is unprecedented," plaintiff lawyer Michael Gottlieb said in his closing argument. "Because the lies in this case became part of a sustained campaign — the purpose of which was to overturn the election — which had the collateral effect of these lies that rocketed around the world."

In interviews and on his social media accounts, Giuliani, then a personal attorney for Trump, pushed the false claim that Freeman and Moss had produced "suitcases" full of fake ballots from under a table and included them in the vote count while working as election employees in Atlanta.

He cited a grainy, edited clip of security footage that was posted online by Trump's campaign and that, in reality, did not show any such thing.

Giuliani falsely claimed — even after Georgia election officials said the allegations were false — that the video showed Freeman and Moss pulling "illegal" ballots while Republican election observers weren't looking, that they illegally counted some ballots multiple times, and that they "passing around USB ports as if they're vials of heroin or cocaine."

It was all evidence, Giuliani said, that the 2020 election results were wrong and that Trump, not Joe Biden, was the real winner.

A statewide audit of the election results, in fact, concluded that Biden did indeed win the state's electoral college votes. And an investigation from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Georgia's election board found the claims against Freeman and Moss, who counted ballots in the city's State Farm Arena, "have no merit."

One America News, the far-right network where Giuliani made some of his false remarks, and whose own employees made similar false claims, was initially included as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. The company settled with Freeman and Moss in 2022 and issued a statement admitting the two "did not engage in ballot fraud."

In the trial, Freeman and Moss, her daughter, both testified about the damage Giuliani's falsehoods have wrought on their lives. Both received an onslaught of violently racist and sexist threats from Trump supporters against them and their families. They have spent the past few years looking over their shoulders. On one occasion, Freeman testified, Trump supporters banged on her door as she received a barrage of death threats.

"I was terrorized. I was scared. I was scared people were coming to kill me," Freeman told jurors. "They had my address. They had my phone number, my name."

Giuliani presented no defense in the trial

The trial testimony echoed what Freeman and Moss, who are Black, told to Congressional investigators examining the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, where protesters tried to stop Congress from certifying the election results. Moss said she received a Facebook message telling her to "be glad it's 2020 and not 1920," an apparent reference to lynchings. And the supposed "USB ports" Giuliani raged about? Moss said her mother had given her "a ginger mint."

From the start, Giuliani struggled to muster a defense against the lawsuit, which was first filed in December of 2021. He said that he didn't always mention Moss and Freeman by name, and that the Trump Campaign, not him, came up with the plan to blame them for the election results. US District Judge Beryl Howell, who's overseeing the case, noted in a ruling that it was clear Giuliani was referring to the election workers when he espoused his "increasingly outlandish paranoia," and that a document offered to the Trump campaign identified him as the key person to orchestrate and execute the plan.

Giuliani subsequently dragged his feet and failed to produce volumes of discovery evidence in the case, missing deadline after deadline. In one line of argument, explaining his delays, he said he was depending on the FBI to keep his electronic files organized, but they had created a mess of them after seizing them for a criminal investigation earlier in 2021.

Howell, in a scathing and incredulous August decision, handed Giuliani an automatic loss. It was not the FBI's job to preserve his electronic devices for a lawsuit he had known was coming, she said. The judge ordered Giuliani and his company to pay $132,000 to lawyers for Freeman and Moss for wasting everyone's time.

It was a fatal blow to Giuliani's defense. The jurors could assume by default that Giuliani's remarks about Freeman and Moss were false and defamatory, the judge said. The only thing to be decided in the trial was the damages.

Ashlee Humphries, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, created a mathematical model for Freeman and Moss to put a dollar number on the damages. At the trial, she testified it would take up to $47.5 million to run a restorative reputational campaign to effectively reverse the damage stemming from Giuliani's statements at issue in the case.

Giuliani's only move was to disperse blame. Joseph D. Sibley, his attorney, told jurors that Giuliani was just one part of a big election-denying machine working for Trump. Giuliani didn't personally make the threats against Freeman and Moss and "a lot of people" were to blame, he said. Freeman and Moss also have another lawsuit pending against the far-right media outlet The Gateway Pundit and its publisher Jim Hoft, who has pushed some of the same conspiracy theories.

"They're all on the same hate train together," Moss testified on the witness stand Tuesday, when asked who was to blame. "It was just Mr. Giuliani driving the bus picking up these people and spreading lies."

"I want to receive some kind of justice for all that myself and my family have been through," she said in her testimony.

Making matters worse for Giuliani, after the first day of the trial, he told journalists in a press conference that the conspiracy theories he espoused were "true" and that he had no regrets.

"They were engaged in changing votes," Giuliani said.

On Thursday, he seemed to have changed his strategy. While he was originally the only witness listed in court documents for his side of the case, Giuliani backed down and declined to testify in his defense.

Sibley presented no other expert testimony to contradict Humphries's estimates. In cross-examining her, he raised whether other factors would mitigate the damage she calculated, like the fact that Georgia election officials cleared Freeman and Moss of wrongdoing. He also questioned whether the whole exercise of "reputational repair" was pointless, given that some people will always believe in conspiracy theories, like people who believe the Earth is flat.

Howell, in tossing a last-ditch effort from Sibley to dismiss the case, rejected that reasoning Thursday. Election conspiracy theorists were not the same as "flat Earthers," she said, and Georgia election officials never executed a marketing campaign.

"They have no hifalutin campaign strategy like the one Mr. Giuliani prepared for the former president," she said.

Michael Gottlieb, a lawyer for Freeman and Moss, played a video of Giuliani's press conference remarks. It was evidence, he said, that Giuliani felt no sympathy for the harm Freeman and Moss suffered and had little concern for their lives.

"Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss are more than just two women in a grainy video in a State Farm Arena," Gottlieb said.

He asked the jury to issue large punitive damages to "send a message to Mr. Giuliani" and others who seek profit and fame "by assassinating the character of ordinary people."

"He has no right to offer defenseless civil servants up to a virtual mob to overturn an election," he said.

The trial ties into Giuliani's criminal case in Georgia

The trial is part of a constellation of defamation lawsuits filed by people and companies falsely targeted by pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the 2020 election results.

The lawsuits from Dominion and Smartmatic, a rival election technology company, are the most high-powered, each demanding billions of dollars from right-wing media organizations who peddled falsehoods that they manipulated election results. Each company has their own pending lawsuits against Giuliani.

Eric Coomer, a former Dominion executive who was at the center of some of the false theories, has a sprawling pending lawsuit in Colorado against several pro-Trump election deniers. One America News and Newsmax both settled his claims against them, but Giuliani remained a defendant in the ongoing case.

The money Giuliani now owes from the trial — a decision he will almost certainly appeal, or try to settle to a lower number — may not be the biggest of his legal problems.

In August, the Fulton County district attorney's office in Atlanta indicted Giuliani, Trump, and about a dozen allies over their efforts to overturn the state's election results. His campaign against Freeman is included as part of the racketeering conspiracy prosecutors allege. He is also an unindicted co-conspirator in the election interference case against Donald Trump brought by Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith.

The criminal cases mark a low point for a man who was once one of the top federal prosecutors in the country. As the US Attorney in Manhattan in the 1980s, he made a specialty of racketeering cases, which he brought aggressively against mob members. And later as the mayor of New York City, he held a place of national prominence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Giuliani is also a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit from Noelle Dunphy, a former employee who claimed he repeatedly sexually abused her. During that period of time, Dunphy alleged, Giuliani had offered to help her with a separate lawsuit from a different man she had accused of sexual abuse. (Giuliani has denied the claims.)

In court filings, Giuliani has pleaded poverty. He listed a Manhattan apartment, which was the site of the 2021 FBI raid. And he had only one attorney in the defamation trial, while Freeman and Moss had 13.

But, so far, Giuliani has resisted actually showing his financial documents, even when courts asked him to do so. He took a private jet to his Georgia booking.

Giuliani seemed unbothered by much of the testimony in the defamation trial, which he told Business Insider was "boring." While watching the testimony in the blonde-toned wooden courtroom, from the defense table, he had a default pose.

He leaned back, put his fingers to his mouth, and fluttered his lips, as if puffing an invisible cigar.

Update December 15, 2023: This story has been updated with comments Rudy Giuliani made after the jury's decision was reached.

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