Carolyn Moore

Carolyn Moore, 63, is an inmate at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women serving two life sentences for her role in a 1985 armed robbery during which her male co-defendant shot the two victims to death. Moore alleges she was coerced into participating in the crime.

When police questioned Carolyn Moore about two insurance salesmen killed during an armed robbery, she confessed without hesitation, confident the officers would understand her predicament.

She described her unwilling participation in the crime, her shock and remorse at learning about the murders, her crippling fear of the man who pulled the trigger.

That was back in 1985. Two Allstate employees had been shot to death while working late in their brand new Gretna office, then robbed of their wallets, watches and rings.

The brazen act of violence sent shockwaves through Jefferson Parish, with media coverage focused on the perpetrators — described as Bonnie and Clyde wannabes, a pair of drug addicts and aspiring career criminals.

Both defendants were ultimately convicted and received the same punishment: life without parole.

Now almost four decades later, advocates say the case deserves another look.

Findings of racial bias within the criminal justice system have been widely acknowledged in recent years, especially after months of protests against police brutality and nationwide reckoning with past injustices. But questions about the treatment of women in American courthouses and prisons remain largely unexplored and unanswered, even after the #MeToo movement brought heightened awareness to many other women's issues.

Those questions are especially significant in Louisiana, which sentences women to life without parole more often than most other states.

From her initial interviews with detectives to her statements during trial, Moore consistently said she had been coerced into participating in a string of armed robberies outside New Orleans, including the one at Allstate that turned fatal.

She said her co-defendant, Mark Miller, had forced her to leave Texas with him a few weeks before the killings. She said he was holding her captive, beating her regularly and feeding her drug habit, threatening to kill her children and parents if she tried to leave him.

There was evidence to support her account, including bruises and signs of severe emotional trauma. One detective testified that when Moore was arrested, she seemed glad the police had "rescued her" from Miller. She told police she felt safer incarcerated than sleeping "in the same room with a madman."

But she couldn't fully escape Miller in jail either. Held in the same facility awaiting trial, he would scream threats and obscenities from outside her cell window, other inmates testified. The guards struggled to handle his outbursts.

None of that was enough to persuade the court that Moore had been anything other than a full and willing participant in the crime.

The question is: What has changed in the 35 years since her conviction?

For the families of the victims, nothing has changed. The two men, Jacques Couret and Wilbert Laiche, left behind wives and children.

"We are the victims. The real story here is the people left behind," Jacques Couret Jr. said in a recent interview. "For the rest of my life, I carry the weight of grief, sadness, anger and resentment because of this woman's actions. If there is justice in Louisiana, she will never see the light of day."

***

Women make up a small percentage of the overall American prison population, though their share is growing. The majority are locked up for relatively minor offenses, often involving drugs or theft.

Research shows that women who commit more serious crimes are often acting as principals or accessories to men. When that relationship involves abuse or coercion, the female participants become both victim and accomplice.

"Criminal law just does not appreciate that level of nuance," said Kate Mogulescu, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. "Our laws need to have everything separated into binaries, categories that don't line up with the life experiences of most people."

As psychological research sheds more light on intimate partner violence, some laws and legal precedents are changing to better reflect the impacts of abuse. But so far, most of those changes apply only to cases in which a victim commits violence against her abuser.

However, New York passed a law in 2019 that applies directly to cases like Moore's. It allows judges to stray from sentencing guidelines when evidence shows an abusive partner coerced the defendant into committing a violent crime. The new law also allows defendants to appeal their sentences, even decades later.

Nothing similar exists in Louisiana, where state laws provide no meaningful avenue to assert coercion claims in the context of domestic violence, experts said. But a 2018 state Supreme Court decision solidified the practice of calling expert witnesses to testify about the effects of intimate partner violence in cases where the defendant harms her abuser and claims self-defense. 

"That decision gave a slight nod to the fact that our self-defense laws are not reflective of the lethal and dangerous situations facing victims of domestic violence," said Katherine Mattes, who directs Tulane Law School's Criminal Justice Clinic. "But the Carolyn Moore case is that much more complicated."

Hers is a story about crime and punishment, prejudice and power — and about how women are treated in a criminal justice system designed for men.

***

Moore was 28 when convicted and sentenced. Since then both her parents have died. Her two daughters have grown up and raised children of their own.

Moore was born in San Antonio. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a Baptist minister. She dropped out of high school after becoming pregnant but earned her GED, started working at a bakery and enrolled in community college. She later started hanging with the wrong crowd, using drugs and shoplifting to support herself.

She married a man who was also a drug user and had a second child.

Her parents tried to save her, tried desperately to remind her about the Christian values of her childhood, Moore said in recent emails. But she wouldn't listen. She was young and stubborn, sinking further into addiction and crime.

Moore did at least two prison stints in Texas, including one for issuing worthless checks and another for attempted murder stemming from a robbery she committed with her brother. She said she fired a weapon into the air during that incident and no one was injured.

Her parents ended up raising her daughters after she left Texas for the last time, sleeping in the passenger seat of Mark Miller's truck.

Moore met Miller through a man she was dating, she said, and the three would use drugs together. One night, Moore was fighting with her boyfriend when Miller intervened and shot the man, she said.

She admitted to willingly leaving the scene with Miller, but claims she asked to be dropped off at her parents' house in San Antonio. Then she fell asleep.

***

Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at the highest rate in the nation, largely because of mandatory sentencing laws. The impacts are most acute for men, but women are not spared.

There are currently about 130 women serving life without parole in Louisiana, which is roughly 8% of the female prison population, according to 2020 data from the Sentencing Project. The share of female prisoners serving life without parole is higher in just two states, Massachusetts and Michigan. In 23 states, the number is less than 1%.

The vast majority of Louisiana's female lifers are convicted of murder, according to Department of Corrections data. In at least 30 cases — about a quarter — the women alleged they were victims of domestic abuse, according to an analysis by The Advocate.

At least 36 female lifers were never accused of committing the crime directly and intentionally. Most were labeled principals, meaning someone else pulled the trigger or struck the fatal blow. Others were convicted under the felony murder statute, which allows prosecutors to obtain a murder conviction without proving intent as long as the death occurred during the commission of another serious felony.

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Moore was convicted both as a principal and under the felony murder statute. There was no evidence she witnessed the shooting.

***

Moore took the stand during her 1985 trial, court transcripts show. She told the jury what happened after she woke up in the passenger seat. Miller was headed to Louisiana, where he had some relatives. He checked them into a hotel outside New Orleans.

Moore said she was addicted to prescription painkillers and cocaine, and Miller supplied her with drugs. She said he forced her to commit armed robberies with him. She described frequent abuse: being beaten "with his fists, with his feet, with his teeth, whatever he had in his hand."

Her attorney presented photographs taken at the time of her arrest showing the injuries on her body, including a bite mark on her right arm. A detective testified the wounds were in various stages of healing and appeared to indicate regular abuse.

"I'm scared of Mark — scared to death of Mark," she told detectives during her confession. She said he threatened to "bite me until his teeth fell out, and when his teeth came out, he would finish biting me with his bloody gums."

Moore told jurors she weighed 92 pounds at the time of her arrest. She said in a recent interview that Miller would feed her "when he wanted to" and force her to have sex with him.

When prosecutors asked why she didn't leave, Moore described the threats against her family. She said she had seen the violence Miller committed and feared what would happen if he caught her plotting an escape.

There were no cell phones back then. Moore said she called her parents once from the phone in a hotel room when Miller stepped outside. She said her father bought her a plane ticket back to Texas, but she never made it to the New Orleans airport.

Instead she was arrested 19 days after arriving in Louisiana, according to her account.

***

Jefferson Parish Judge Joseph Grefer allowed prosecutors to present evidence of two other armed robberies linked to the same suspects. Victims in those cases said Moore actively participated in the crimes, pulling a gun and even striking someone with the weapon. Moore did not dispute her participation but said she was following orders from her abuser.

She said in recent emails that she had no reason to suspect Miller would kill the Allstate agents because the prior robberies had not escalated into such violence.

She and Miller gave disparate accounts of how the Allstate murders went down, but both agreed she was waiting in the car when he pulled the trigger. Moore admitted to knocking on the office door — it was locked after hours — and going inside first. She also confessed to pulling a gun, per Miller's orders.

Miller took a plea deal to avoid the death penalty and agreed to testify against his co-defendant. He claimed she encouraged him to kill the victims.

Moore said she was shocked when Miller told her about the murders because she didn't hear any gunshots. She said at first she didn't believe him, then saw news reports about the shooting.

Miller's testimony came after he had terrorized Moore for months inside the Jefferson Parish jail, according to written statements from several other inmates. One woman said Miller was "continually cursing, hollering and threatening Carolyn," and others recalled him saying he should have killed her long ago.

Miller declined to be interviewed or answer questions for this story. He remains incarcerated at Angola.

The attorney who represented him, Robert Marrero, said Miller was a memorable client even decades later. At one point he was "cutting up so bad" behind bars that court officials started holding his hearings inside the jail, meaning the judge and lawyers had to travel there and create a makeshift courtroom.

Marrero also said he believed that Moore had been abused, but had questions about the coercion claims: "Is she the pure innocent victim in all of this? I seriously doubt it."

Media reports about the case described her as "a Texas drifter" and "a confessed thief and drug addict." They described Miller as her "lover and traveling companion."

Prosecutors called Miller an undeniable villain and "cold-blooded murderer," but questioned "who was with Mark Miller?"

"She starts talking about the force and intimidation that was allegedly used on her to commit these armed robberies," the prosecution said during closing arguments. "Then it becomes not a confession — it becomes a self-serving document."

Moore's defense attorney begged the jury not to convict based on her lifestyle as a "street person" and drug addict: "The point is whether or not Mark Miller was beating up on Carolyn. Somebody put those marks on her."

The 12 jurors deciding her case — 11 White people and one Black woman — quickly reached a unanimous guilty verdict. Convicted on two counts of second-degree murder, Moore received two automatic life sentences.

"I'm sure he probably did beat her up, and that's a shame," said jury foreman Pat Driver when reached by phone earlier this year. "But she didn't leave. Maybe she was a victim too, but unfortunately so were the people who got shot."

***

Experts have long struggled to answer a complicated question: When it comes to serious violent crimes, do men and women act for different reasons?

Studies show that women are more likely to play a secondary role, acting as accomplices to leading men, and their vulnerability to violence can impact those relationships.

Marcus Kondkar, a professor of sociology at Loyola University who has interviewed dozens of female lifers in Louisiana prisons, describes a "more indirect trajectory that women often find themselves on."

Once they land in court, women often experience an unforgiving system, according to advocates.

"Women are treated harshly in the criminal justice system because they're veering off the beaten path of what we expect women to be: mothers and caregivers, cooking and cleaning," said Syrita Steib-Martin, a founder of Operation Restoration in New Orleans, which helps incarcerated women reentering society.

Mandatory sentencing laws add to the problem, said Kerry Myers, deputy director of the Louisiana Parole Project. "We are obviously constraining our judges from doing their jobs. While the conviction may be valid, justice is not achieved with a mandatory sentence," he said.

For most Louisiana lifers, the clemency process is their only potential path to release.

Many pardon boards look for a relatively specific narrative from the inmates appearing before them, according to experts and advocates. That narrative centers on accepting responsibility for the crime and leaves little room for nuance, which often defines women's cases.

Moore went before the Louisiana Board of Pardons in 2018. Her daughter asked the board to give her mother "another chance at life." Then the son of one victim spoke, saying his father would like that same chance. He said Moore had a history of illegal acts long before this fatal tragedy. He said her actions are what landed her in prison.

The board voted to deny Moore's request for commutation. The decision was based on "a multitude of reasons," board members said, including opposition from surviving relatives, some prison disciplinary writeups issued decades earlier — and a tendency to put the blame on her accomplice.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.