Before they enter the courtroom each morning -- together and smiling -- Warren and Felicia Moon pray. That is the first sign that the spousal assault trial unfolding in this sleepy Houston suburb is unusual.
The State of Texas v. Harold Warren Moon Jr. involves one of the most popular sports figures in Houston, a community do-gooder known for his devotion to his wife, his four children and his church, and a trail-blazing athlete who made history as one of the first black quarterbacks to play professional football.
In certain themes, the trial of the former Houston Oiler, now a quarterback with the Minnesota Vikings, echoes the recent trial of O.J. Simpson: a rich and handsome football player with a beautiful wife, and the specter of domestic violence.
But in this case, both Warren Moon and his wife of 15 years, a well-known figure in her own right who has championed local women's shelters and domestic abuse programs, are clearly on the same side -- the side of Warren Moon. What also makes it striking is that police and prosecutors soldiered on despite the most strenuous objections from Felicia Moon, who now calls herself "a victim" of the district attorney's office.
Defense attorneys have suggested that police and prosecutors, influenced by the then-ongoing Simpson trial, were overzealous in their pursuit of another headline-grabbing case.
As she tearfully took the stand Monday, Felicia Moon, 39, largely blamed herself for a wild July 18 fight that brought the couple to this very public airing of acknowledged marital difficulties. She said she suffers from episodes of "explosive rage" that make it impossible at times to control her emotions. She insisted that she started the fight by lobbing a three-pound candlestick at her husband's back, and that she kneed him in the groin as he tried to calm her down.
The bloody scratches on her neck shown in police photographs, she said, may have been caused by her own false fingernails -- and not, as prosecutors charge, by her husband's attempts to choke her.
In fact, she said, despite the recent troubles and other allegations in a recently revealed 1986 divorce petition that she filed but then withdrew, her husband has never tried to hurt her physically.
"I'm not going to wear anybody's labels. I know what the truth is," she said, angrily denying that she has ever been "a battered woman."
If convicted of the misdemeanor charge by a jury of four women and two men in this Houston suburb, Warren Moon, also 39, could face up to a year in jail. He has called the incident "a tremendous mistake" and has spoken publicly of trying to work out the family's problems through professional counseling and prayer.
From the beginning, the Moons have been reluctant to participate in this official phase of their domestic drama. Police were summoned to their gated mansion in an upscale Houston suburb last July only after the couple's housekeeper, Elena Morales, dialed 911. Unable to speak English very well, Morales handed the telephone to the youngest of the Moon children, Jeffrey, then 7, who cried to the dispatcher, "My daddy's gonna hit my mommy. Please hurry."
The battle quickly spilled over into the couple's wealthy neighborhood, as Felicia Moon fled in her car and Warren Moon gave chase in his own, with speeds allegedly reaching 100 miles per hour.
But Felicia Moon refused to press charges against her husband despite what she said was pressure from police and prosecutors. During questioning Monday by defense attorney Rusty Hardin, Felicia Moon said prosecutors were not interested in hearing about her role in escalating the conflict.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Elliott, who is prosecuting the case, said in an interview that it is not unusual for women in such instances to decline to press charges. But prosecutors may press ahead anyway in cases where the offense is serious, there have been prior incidents, children were involved or there is physical evidence of abuse.
Although the Moon case has some similarities to the O.J. Simpson story, the scene here at the Fort Bend County courthouse, with its shade trees and open gravel parking lot, has been remarkably subdued. There have been few stampeding reporters, no outside protesters, no great public crush to get a courtroom seat. Yet, inside Courtroom No. 1 for two straight days, Felicia Moon provided a fascinating glimpse into a soured marriage.
Sometimes coming down from the witness stand to act out scenes with defense attorney Hardin, Moon described yelling matches in which she would call her husband "a coward" and would rail at him for often being absent, at games and special events, while she raised the children. Moon sat quietly at the defense table as she spoke, sometimes bowing his head as she portrayed a bitter scene.
"I have been known to throw things at him," she said. "Warren has this way about him. He can be mean. He can say mean things to you and leave it at that. I'm more wanting to yell about it, whatever, to get it out. . . . I had learned the only way to get his attention was to get in his face."
It was not always this way, she said. The Moons were high school sweethearts in their native California, meeting in math class, where Felicia first dismissed the briefcase-toting Warren as "a nerd."
Married in 1981, they first lived in Canada, where Moon played for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League because, she said, National Football League teams at that time did not want to hire black quarterbacks. The couple moved to Houston and the suddenly rich life when he signed with the Oilers in 1984 as one of the NFL's highest-paid players at that time.
Often depressed, home alone with active young children and determined to be a perfect mother, Felicia Moon said she often sought solace in spending. Some of the couple's biggest rows were about money, she said. The July 18 fight revolved around a credit card bill that totaled $160,000.
At one point, she said, the relationship with her husband deteriorated so badly that "I refused sex with him. He would make advances to maybe try to put a spark or some kind of affection back into our marriage. I had no desire anymore to have sex with him."
After Felicia Moon's brief move toward a divorce in 1986, the couple worked on their relationship and matters improved, she said. But by last July, they had been separated for a few days when Warren Moon brought up the credit card bill, and the pivotal battle ensued.
"I could feel myself losing control," she said. "Years ago, I was taught the signals for bringing on rage, like very rapid heartbeat. All those things began to happen and I knew I was losing control. I began to pray, Jesus, just help me.' I knew that Warren and I were in similar circumstances. I didn't want Warren to lose control, either. I didn't want us to have another violent incident."
But after she threw the candlestick and hit her mark, she said, there was no turning back. She said she believes the maid and her son got the wrong impression about Warren's role in the fight when they glimpsed the couple through the open bedroom doorway -- Felicia on the floor where she had stumbled, Warren standing over her, trying to help her up, she said.
"Did he at any time swing at you?" Hardin asked.
"No," she said. "One time, during all this, he drew his hand back as if he was going to hit. . . . He was trying to get me to calm down, Felicia, calm down, calm down, you're getting out of control.' " She said she never meant to give the impression that he had "choked" her, but that he had "chocked" her, meaning he tried to hold her still by grabbing her around the shoulders as she struggled.
Even so, she said, she does not want anyone to think she finds her husband blameless. Both of them, she said, damaged their marriage and, she fears, their children, with their violent actions.
"I do not feel completely responsible," she said, "but I do bear responsibility. I threw the candleholder. I started the fight." CAPTION: Felicia Moon breaks down during testimony Monday in Richmond, Tex., in trial of her husband, NFL quarterback Warren Moon, who is accused of spousal assault in an incident last July.