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Giuliani caused ‘perpetual nightmare’ for 2020 election workers, jury told

<span>Photograph: Bryan R Smith/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bryan R Smith/AFP/Getty Images

Rudy Giuliani “disgraced” the names of two Atlanta election workers as part of a call to action, causing them to suffer a “perpetual nightmare” since December 2020, attorneys representing the two women said during opening statements in a closely watched defamation trial.

“It was vicious,” Von DuBose, a lawyer representing Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, two Black election workers from Georgia, told an eight-person jury seated on Monday. “He used their names as a cornerstone of a call to action.”

Over the next week, the jury will determine how much Giuliani should have to pay Freeman and Moss in compensatory and punitive damages. The court has already found him liable for defamation and Freeman and Moss are seeking between $15.5m and $43m.

Related: Georgia prosecutors predict jail sentences in Trump 2020 election case

The case is significant because it is one of the most aggressive and advanced efforts to get accountability from Donald Trump allies who spread lies as part of the ex-president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. It is one of several cases testing whether defamation law can be used as a new tool to combat misinformation. And perhaps more than any other episode in the chaotic aftermath of the 2020 election, it crystallizes the human toll of election denialism. Giuliani also faces criminal charges in Georgia as part of the wide-ranging case there over Trump’s efforts to turn the election.

DuBose played a series of vile voicemails Freeman and Moss received after the election, which included racial slurs and racist death threats. He also played clips in which Giuliani repeatedly accused Moss and Freeman of fraudulently counting ballots after the claims had been debunked. “They knew it was untrue. They intended to do things like this,” he said.

Freeman and Moss, both of whom were present in the courtroom on Monday with Giuliani, will testify this week. DuBose said they will speak about the distress they have faced since. Freeman will testify about how strangers came to her house in the middle of the night to harass her and how she had to flee her home for her safety. “The home she had lived in for more than 20 years – put her home on the market had left. Went to a place where no one could trace her name,” he said.

And DuBose said Moss, who worked her way up in the Fulton county elections office, would speak about the humiliation she has endured while trying to find another job. When she went for an interview at the fast-food restaurant Chick-fil-A, an interviewer pulled up a news story accusing her of fraud and asked if it was her. She hung her head and left, he said.

Joseph Sibley, Giuliani’s lawyer, told jurors there was no dispute that Moss and Freeman suffered harm, but said it was not Giuliani’s fault. “He never promoted violence against these women, this is something other people did independent of Mr Giuliani.”

He also said that awarding the damages sought against Giuliani, who has significant financial troubles, would amount to the “death penalty” for his client. “If you award them what they are asking for, it will be the end of Mr Giuliani,” he said.

But Michael Gottlieb, another attorney representing Freeman and Moss, said it was important that the jury should consider “how cruel it is for powerful figures to target election workers, to brand volunteers and civil servants as fraudsters without evidence. Knowing that millions of people would act upon those lies. In fact, intending millions of people would act upon those lies.”

He urged them to reach a verdict that would “send a message”.

“In the United States of America, behavior like Rudy Giuliani’s is not the inevitable result of politics. It is not acceptable. And it will not be tolerated,” he said.

Approached in the courthouse on Monday before opening arguments, Giuliani declined to comment on the case. But he said he and his team had a few surprises for the case, and declined to say more. In the courtroom on Monday, Giuliani sat expressionless at the defense table with his arms crossed, occasionally flicking through an electronic tablet during breaks in the proceedings.

The first witness to testify on Monday was Regina Scott, a security expert at the firm Jensen Hughes who was hired by Freeman and Scott and the firm Protect Democracy to monitor threats against the two women. Questioned by DuBose, she walked through the enormous volume of threats that surfaced online about Freeman and Moss.

Sibley, Giuliani’s lawyer, sought to undercut her testimony by questioning the qualifications of the people who had analyzed the data and pointing out that the firm had not actually analyzed whether the threats came from Giuliani.

In a brief statement to reporters outside the courthouse after proceedings ended for the day, Giuliani claimed the statements he made about Freeman and Moss were true and he would prove it at trial. The statement was bizarre – Giuliani has already conceded in legal filings that he defamed the women.

“When I testify, you’ll get the whole story and it will be definitively clear what I said was true and that whatever happened to them, which was unfortunate if other people overreacted, but everything I said about them is true,” he said. Asked if he regretted what he said, Giuliani said: “Of course I don’t regret it, I told the truth.”

Asked whether part of Giuliani’s defense would be that the statements were true, Sibley declined to comment.

When a reporter pointed out there was no proof of his allegations against Freeman and Moss, Giuliani said to “stay tuned”.

“That’s not a surprise coming from him,” DuBose said, responding to Giuliani’s comments after court. “Mr Giuliani has already been found liable for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on Ms Freeman and Ms Moss. He’s also been found liable for waging an outrageous defamatory smear campaign against Ms Freeman and Ms Moss. I don’t know if there’s anything that would make them whole again, but they are looking forward to their day in court.

Freeman told the US House committee that investigated the January 6 attack that she was afraid to give her name in public. On election night in 2020, she was wearing a shirt that proudly proclaimed her name, but she now refuses to wear it in public.

“She now lives in fear of hearing it. She’s had to change the name of her business. You’ll hear how she took such pride in being known as Lady Ruby. She’s no longer Lady Ruby, because she’s scared,” DuBose said.

“I won’t even introduce myself by my name any more. I get nervous when I bump into someone I know in the grocery store who says my name. I’m worried about people listening. I get nervous when I have to give my name for food orders. I’m always concerned of who’s around me,” Freeman told the January 6 committee.

“There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere. Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you?”

Moss told Reuters in 2021 that she suffered anxiety and depression, and her son, who used a cellphone with a phone number once registered to her, started receiving death threats and began failing in school.

Both women have not spoken much publicly since the 2020 election, but are expected to take the witness stand this week.

“The Rudy Giuliani you see today is the same man who took down the mafia, cleaned up New York City and comforted the nation following September 11. I implore folks to take the life of public service and accomplishments of Rudy Giuliani and name a more consequential mayor or US attorney in our nation’s history,” Ted Goodman, a Giuliani political adviser, said in a statement.

“I urge members of the legal community and all Americans – across the partisan political spectrum – to stand up and speak out against the weaponization of our justice system against political opponents.”

Giuliani has also already been sanctioned more than $200,000 for refusing to turn over documents as part of the lawsuit. Howell, the judge, also berated Giuliani’s attorney last week after Giuliani failed to show up for a hearing.

Giuliani is expected to testify during the trial, and his lawyer indicated last week that the former New York City mayor did not plan to invoke his fifth amendment rights during the proceeding.

The original lawsuit, filed in December 2021, sought damages from both Giuliani and One America News, the far-right channel that spread countless pieces of misinformation after the 2020 election. Freeman and Moss settled with OAN in 2022. While the terms of the agreement have not been publicly disclosed, the network acknowledged on air shortly after that there was no widespread voter fraud in Georgia in 2020.