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Testimony begins in the dueling defamation suits over Roy Moore molestation claims

Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, right, and his attorney Julian McPhillips, left, leave the courtroom in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday following jury selection. Moore and Leigh Corfman, who accused him of sexual assault, are suing each other for defamation.
Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser
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via AP
Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, right, and his attorney Julian McPhillips, left, leave the courtroom in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday following jury selection. Moore and Leigh Corfman, who accused him of sexual assault, are suing each other for defamation.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Dueling defamation lawsuits filed by failed U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and a woman who accused him of molesting her decades ago, derailing his 2017 campaign, went on trial Tuesday with the woman's lawyer telling jurors it was up to them to decide who to believe.

Leigh Corfman, who claimed Moore touched her sexually when she was 14 and he was 32, sat across an Alabama courtroom from Moore as jurors in the civil trial began hearing opening statements from lawyers and the initial witnesses.

The allegations overshadowed the conservative Republican during the 2017 campaign as Moore ultimately fell in a stunning red state defeat to Doug Jones, the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in 25 years. Republican Tommy Tuberville defeated Jones in the next election.

During opening statements, lawyers gave divergent views of Corfman and Moore and what happened in 1979. Lawyers for Moore told jurors that he doesn't know Corfman, whom they described as being motivated by politics and a desire to be in the limelight. An attorney for Corfman said the woman came forward only reluctantly around the time of the Senate race when approached by a reporter.

Melody Eagan, an attorney representing Corfman, told jurors that Moore victimized Corfman twice: once in 1979 when he sexually touched her in his home when she was 14 and decades later in 2017 when he "defamed her by dragging her name through the mud."

"He attacked her integrity, and he did so publicly, and he did so relentlessly, all the time knowing the truth that in 1979 he pursued a 14-year-old girl," she said.

Julian McPhillips, an attorney representing Moore, who was twice elected and removed as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, told jurors that Moore had never even seen Corfman until they were in the same room for jury selection. All Moore did was to defend himself against false accusations, he said.

"Judge Moore dared to prove his innocence. He dared to deny he even knew her," McPhillips said.

He suggested Corfman's accusations were brought to keep Moore from winning the 2017 Senate race.

"The political motivation should be clear, why else would she do it?" McPhillips said. "She filed the suit so she can keep on backing in the limelight."

It's unclear how long the trial might last. While Corfman is seeking only a ruling that Moore defamed her, McPhillips said Moore seeks monetary compensation.

Eagan said Corfman met Moore in 1979 when she was 14 and sitting with her mother outside an Etowah County courtroom for a custody hearing and Moore, an assistant district attorney at the time, offered to sit with her. After getting her telephone number, Moore brought her to his home on two occasions, kissing her and taking off her clothes, Eagan said.

"He touched Leigh over her bra. And he touched Leigh over her panties .... She was terrified," Eagan said.

Corfman's lawyers played a tape of Moore recorded at campaign events saying he did not know women who accused him and did not engage in sexual misconduct. "It's simply dirty politics," Moore told a crowd.

Eagan said Corfman had nothing to gain by coming forward. "Bottom line is you have to decide who you believe," Eagan told jurors.

Moore's attorneys tried to put Corfman's character on trial, calling her vindictive and scheming, saying she was a troubled teenager and questioning a decision by her mother, Nancy Wells, to let her daughter read Harlequin romance novels as a young teen.

Wells, the first witness, she said she had no doubt that it was Moore who approached her and her daughter at the courthouse in 1979. She said it was years later, when Corfman was an adult, that Corfman told her about Moore's action.

One of Corfman's attorneys asked Wells if she had any personal knowledge of misconduct by Moore, who rose to prominence in state politics after hanging a Ten Commandments plaque on a courtroom wall.

"I just have what my daughter told me," Wells replied.

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