REXBURG — District Judge Gregory Moeller can remember the moment he knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He was watching “To Kill a Mockingbird” during his sophomore year at South Fremont High School. After the trial and conviction of Tom Robinson for a crime he didn’t commit, Reverend Sykes says to Scout, “stand up. Your father’s passin.’”
The fictional Atticus Finch has long been the folk hero of the legal profession, and stands among the most common inspirations cited for why attorneys chose their career.
Moeller’s inspiration from the film is not unique, though he is unique as one of the lucky few to receive a copy of the book signed by Harper Lee in 2009. Pastor Thomas Butts of Monroeville, Ala., received a copy of a speech Moeller had made at the Madison Public Library about the book and took it to Lee. The author, who died Feb. 1, 2016, was living in a nursing home and rarely signed books.
“We placed the book under a powerful magnifying glass with a light shining through it, and the signing turned out pretty good,” Butts wrote to Moeller. “Tomorrow, she will not remember signing the book.”
Moeller, 54, was born in California before moving to St. Anthony in fifth grade. He graduated high school in 1981. He spent two years as a missionary in Japan before returning to complete his bachelor’s degree in political science at Brigham Young University in 1987. Three years later he achieved his goal to become a lawyer when he graduated from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, passed the bar exam and was hired by Rigby, Thatcher, Andrus, Rigby & Kam, now known as Rigby, Andrus & Rigby.
Today, Moeller is one of four finalists being considered for the Idaho Supreme Court, the second time in the past year he’s been considered for the job.
If Moeller was hoping for a case that allowed him to let loose his inner Atticus, he received it sooner than expected.
Rauland Grube of Ashton was charged in 1991 with first-degree murder for the shooting death of 15-year-old Amy Hossner eight years earlier. She had been found dead in her basement bedroom. Investigators determined she was killed with a shotgun blast to her chest and neck.
Moeller was partnered with a more experienced attorney, Michael Kam, to represent Grube. Moeller had passed the bar only eight months earlier.
The charges were based on a witness who said Grube had told her he was outside Hossner’s window the night she died.
When the attorneys first met with Grube, he immediately told them he was innocent. Both Moeller and Kam were suspicious that evidence against their client was discovered after being overlooked for eight years, and they were convinced Grube was not a violent man.
The court proceedings were ugly. Kam and Moeller asked the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office to allow Grube to wear a bulletproof vest in the courtroom. During one hearing, a member of the public stood up and began shouting threats. The attorneys pushed Grube to the floor and used their own bodies to shield him, forgetting that Grube was the one wearing a protective vest.
“As foolish as that was, I am glad my instincts were noble,” Moeller wrote in the text for his 2009 Madison Public Library speech. “It would have looked quite bad in the media to see a photo of two attorneys fearfully hiding behind their client.”
Moeller said he began receiving threats at home. One caller would remain silent for several seconds, then ask Moeller if he knew where his children were. Though Moeller was disturbed by the threats and concerned for his children’s safety, he found it reassuring that if someone evil enough to make those threats was concerned, he must be on the right track.
The trial seemed to go well, particularly when the prosecution’s own ballistics expert testified that Grube’s shotgun could not have been the weapon used in the murder based on the pellet pattern. Moeller gave the closing argument, telling the jury that the words he was about to speak would be the most important in his life.
That speech failed to convince the jury, and Grube was convicted in October 1991. He was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and sent to prison in March 1992.
In 1994, Kam and Moeller were contacted by a man who said the state had interviewed him for the case. He told investigators he was the one who informed Grube of Hossner’s death, and that Grube seemed genuinely sad and surprised at the news. He also said he had seen an Ashton police officer a few blocks from Hossner’s house. The officer had been an early suspect in the investigation.
That witness’ statements had never been disclosed to the attorneys. Years of appeals followed, and Kam died in 2001. The county was no longer paying for Grube’s defense, and Moeller found himself working on the case for free and without his longtime partner.
“Mr. Kam was a good attorney and an even better friend,” Moeller said. “I wish he could have been there at the end to see how it all turned out.”
Dennis Benjamin, a Boise attorney, joined the case in 2000 as part of the habeas corpus petition filed in U.S. District Court. He was impressed with how long Moeller had stayed with the case.
“He represented the Grube family for free for years because he really cared about the client and his family,” Benjamin said.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled Grube was not given a fair trial, and on March 21 of that year, Grube was allowed to leave prison after serving 14 years of a life sentence. The prosecution intended to retry him, but then offered a plea deal that would reduce the charge to aggravated assault and allow the charges to be dismissed after he served 90 days of probation.
There were other cases along the way. In 2001 Moeller represented the people of Madison County when the city was split into two legislative districts, cutting the county’s influence in the Legislature and grouping each half into districts that did not share any social, economic or political interests.
Moeller also remembers an adoption case where the family visited him years later to tell him about the life they’d had since the adoption.
The Grube case made Moeller a local legend, but he said it was those small, every day cases that he remembers most fondly.
“Although the Grube case might have made me famous, it’s those other cases that were the most important,” Moeller said.
Grube died Jan. 22, 2009, from a stroke at the age of 45.
Moeller said the case haunted him every day during the years he worked to prove Grube’s innocence. The case lasted the majority of his career as a lawyer, and fewer than three months after his former client’s death, Moeller was appointed to be a district judge.
“If I had known how much I would have enjoyed being a judge, I would have wanted to be one sooner,” Moeller said.
Benjamin said he’s kept in contact with Moeller. They keep professional distance despite having worked together on the Grube case, as they sometimes find themselves appearing in the same court. Benjamin said he recently appealed an arrest warrant signed by Moeller, an example of why that distance is necessary. The Court of Appeals upheld the warrant.
Moeller said that if he is appointed to the Idaho Supreme Court, he will miss eastern Idaho, as it is where he grew up and has practiced law, but he is also excited by the prospect.
In his 2009 Madison Public Library speech, Moeller imagines what might have happened to Atticus after the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He thinks it’s likely Atticus would have stayed a lawyer in Maycomb, but prefers to imagine his hero also became a judge, where his fair-mindedness could have helped those in the judicial system.
“I think I need to go where I can do the most good,” Moeller said.