“I was considered the worst of the worst”

Billy Moore spent almost 17 years on Georgia’s death row for the robbery-murder of 77-year-old Fredger Stapleton. Moore confessed to the murder to police plead guilty, and was given the death sentence. Billy was paroled in 1991, after a group of the victim’s family spoke out against his execution at a parole board hearing. He has spent the last 12 years of freedom determined to show that the death penalty is no solution to crime. In November, Billy will be a featured speaker at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s national convention which will be held in Chicago on the weekend of November 13 and 14th. He talked to Marlene Martin about his story.

Could you talk about how you ended up on death row?

I was told by a guy I had met that he knew a man who kept $30,000 in his house. And he was old. We could rob him, and nobody would have to get hurt. But of course, when you’re using drugs and drinking alcohol, you think you have things under control, and you don’t. While we were in this man’s house, he shot at me with a shotgun. And being intoxicated and messed up as I was, this scared me and caused me to shoot him.

I was 22 years old. After I got home and sobered up, it began to dawn on me that I had killed someone. It was the worst thing that I could have realized–even though the military teaches you that you can kill and you can be hard. The motive was that my first wife had left me with our three-year-old son. I didn’t have a place to stay, I had a three-year-old son, and I needed money. So when George told me about an old man who had $30,000, I said alright, this will help. There was never any intent any plan to kill anybody.

When Mr. Stapleton was killed and I sobered up at home in my trailer, I wondered how in the world could I have done this. So I was really happy when the police arrested me the next day. I felt like we could get this over with. But I was deeply hurt, because I had to put my son in the same position I was left in–when I was four, my father went to prison for 17 years. He came home just before I joined the service. My mother had multiple sclerosis. My two older sisters went to New York to live, my other sister lived on the other side of town, and my two brothers went to New York with my older sisters.

So I was the only person home, taking care of my mother. I’m up cooking, cleaning the house, going to school. I worked all the way through junior high school as an assistant janitor at the school, and I worked at a foundry after school in high school in the 10th, 11th and part of the 12th grade, until I joined the service. I worked regular eight-hour jobs. I was leaving school at 2:30 p.m., getting to work at 3 p.m. and working until 11:30 p.m., and coming home and going to bed–then going to school the next day.

So when my father got out of prison, the service was an avenue for a break. My mom had gotten to the point where she couldn’t walk, she needed a wheelchair, and it was getting hard for me to pick her up and clean her up and do all this stuff. But like I said, the problem was me–I committed the crime. They arrested me and the sheriff told me the night they arrested me that he was going to make sure I got a death sentence. I didn’t care–I wanted to die. That’s how bad I was feeling.

What happened at the trial?

We went to court, and I pled guilty–no jury, just the judge. When the state was done with their side, my lawyer said that we were admitting to the crime and asking for mercy. I got on the stand and explained everything to the judge that I could remember–and that I didn’t intend to do it, but I did, so I was pleading guilty.

So that was the trial–half a day. The transcript is 55 pages long. In some cases, just the selection of the jury is like 1,200 pages.

I got a copy of my transcript and court records, and in those records were the addresses and names of some of the members of the victim’s family. When I saw that, I knew in my heart that I had to write to these people to apologize. I did, and they wrote me back and said they were Christian people and forgave me. It was like a breath of life. They were giving me a breath of life. Here are the people who should want me to die–who had every reason to want me to die–saying that they didn’t want me to die and that they forgave me. We continue to write, even to this present day, and talk on the phone. I even go visit them at times.

These family members then testified on your behalf when you petitioned the parole board to have your death sentence commuted didn’t they?

When the parole board hearing took place, the victim’s family got everybody together that Mr. Stapleton knew. They brought a bus with about 50 people–family members and friends.

I had told my lawyers that I don’t want anybody to go down there and harass them or ask them to do anything. I said that we were friends, and if they wanted to do anything for me, they would do it for me on their own. So when they found out that they could come to the hearing, they got everybody together and went. They told the parole board, “Listen, we lost one family member, and Billy is like another member, and we don’t want to lose another member of our family. We do not want you to execute him.”

Then there were probably five or six ministers that I knew from being in prison who testified. And a friend of mine who was a Jesuit priest had talked to Mother Theresa about me. The parole board heard about her wanting to talk to them, so they called her, and she told them that they should commute the case. And they did. On August 22, 1990, they said that my sentence was commuted from death to life, and I would have to do 25 years before becoming eligible for parole.

A year later, the parole board had to overturn that 25-year limit and paroled you. That makes you among a very small number who are guilty of the crime that they were sent to death row for, and are now free.

I believe that I stand alone as a person who pled guilty who is now free. I’m a death row inmate who pled guilty whose sentence that was commuted to life. That puts me in a very unique position. With people who are innocent, they never should have been there in the first place. You’re going to look at the tactics of the police and the prosecutors that put people there.

But when you come to me, you have to deal with capital punishment itself–because I’m guilty. I’ve never said that I wasn’t guilty. If we’re going to get people to oppose capital punishment, they have to deal with me–a person who’s guilty.

Most people don’t know anybody who’s on death row. So all they know is what they hear in the paper, and what they’ve seen–how bad and how terrible death row inmates are. But when they see me and listen to me, that changes things. And I’m no different than anybody else on death row–people need to know that.

Defenders of the death penalty say that executions should be carried out for the worst of the worst.

I was considered the worst of the worst. That’s why I was sent to death row–I was considered the worst criminal.

Capital punishment is a political tool. That’s how George Bush’s father won–using the crime issue against Michael Dukakis and talking about how he was soft and let Willie Horton out, who committed a crime when he was supposed to have a life sentence.

But there are statistics that show that of the people from pre-Fuhrman cases whose death sentences were overturned in 1972, very few are back in prison. That’s a person who got a life sentence, did time, and grew up and matured. They don’t get in trouble again.

Wouldn’t society’s efforts be better put into other areas than running a death penalty system?

The state of Georgia spent more than $1.5 million trying to kill me. If somebody had invested just $100,000 in my life as a child, I would have never got to where I ended up.

The state is spending all this money trying to kill folks, but if it would invest that money into neighborhoods and into young people’s lives to better them, they wouldn’t be committing crimes.

For people on death row, you can go look at their backgrounds and see the hardship that they had as a child. That doesn’t excuse the crime, because there are a lot of people who’ve had bad backgrounds and hardship as they grow up.

But the poverty, the racism, the lack of education–that has an effect on kids. It would be different if you gave them a chance and an opportunity to do better.

Billy Moore: People in prison can change

Billy Moore spent almost 17 years on Georgia’s death row for a robbery and murder that he confessed and pled guilty to. He was paroled in 1991 after a group of the victim’s family spoke out against his execution — and has spent the time since speaking out against the death penalty.

I consider it a great honor to be able to come and speak with you and share some of the things that have happened in my life. First I’d like to say, I’d like everyone to meet my wife, Donna Moore. It’s just a blessing because we met here in Chicago after I got out of prison in ’92, and we got married in ’93. We’re not just here to be with the convention, but to reminisce some about being in Chicago, as she was saying.

I am guilty. I committed a crime. I was in the service. I was in the army. I felt that I needed to get away from my neighborhood, because it was nothing but trouble. I was getting in trouble, and, you know, a lot of times you think or you are told the people you run around with get you in trouble. But when it’s here, when it’s in you [pointing to himself], it doesn’t matter where you go. You are going to get in trouble, and that’s the way it was with me. After going to Germany, staying there for three years, coming back to the United States, I immediately ran into a guy and he said, “Hey I know this guy that’s got twenty thousand, thirty thousand dollars in his house, and we can take it. Nobody has to get hurt.” My first wife had just broomed off and left me with a three-year-old son, and I didn’t have any money. I needed money, and at that time, and at that point in my life, I would do whatever deed I needed to do to get it. When he told me that there was a man that had this money and we could rob him, that sounded good to me.

But no matter how much the military taught me to kill, no matter how much violence I experienced in my neighborhood, when the night that that happened, and Mr. Stapleton was killed and I shot him and killed him, you know, a part of me died. You never experience that — you are never told that we are all part of the same human race — we are all connected together. And even though I was on drugs, even though I was high, even though I did all that, when it happened, I knew a part of me died.

I was arrested the next day. The guy that was with me, the police arrested him first and then they let him go when he brought them to my trailer. Then they arrested me. I found out then that the man that was with me, that it was his uncle that we had robbed and killed. But they let him go. When I went to court, what happened was this; the sheriff told me that he was going to get me a death sentence. Simple as that. My sister hired a lawyer and gave him $9000 to represent me. But he was from one county and my crime happened in another county. The sheriff told the judge, “Give him the death sentence.”  But because of the fact that I had committed this murder and [was] trying to live with myself, it was a hard thing for me to do. So I gave the police — now I was a military police in the army so I know I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut — I gave them a two-and-a-half-hour confession because I just could not help it. I just had to tell them what I did.

When I went to court, even though my sister had a lawyer, I pled guilty because I told the judge there is no way I can come in here and say I am not guilty just to have a big old trial — because I am guilty. I didn’t mean to kill him; I meant to rob him. But because I was all messed up and stuff, I did do it so I’m going to take responsibility. He said, “Fine, on Friday, September the 13th, 1974, you will be taken from the county jail to the state prison and between the hours of ten and two, you will be executed.”

My lawyer told me that his brother, the judge, talked to the other judge and they’d get me a life sentence. I asked him, I said, “Well, what happened to the life sentence,” and he said, “Don’t worry about it. Capital punishment is not legal. Don’t worry about it — you aren’t going to be executed.”

Now my lawyer did not tell me that because I got an execution date there was an automatic appeal. So on Friday, September the 13th, I’m sitting in my cell on my bed waiting to be executed. I’m waiting for the guards to come and get me. Nobody says anything to me about it. Well, nothing happens. None of the guards come by. Nobody stopped by my cell, and, of course, I don’t flag anybody down. I don’t say, “Hey, did you all forget me?” I don’t do it.

Monday I get a letter from my lawyer: “Billy, I forgot to tell you that your first execution date would be stayed and what I need for you to do is write your sister and tell her to send me $3000 to appeal your case to the Georgia Supreme Court.” Now, you know a death sentence is an automatic appeal — you don’t have to appeal it. It’s going to go on it’s own. So I finally convinced my sister not to do it, and I began to represent myself.

One of the things that I did when I finally got all of my records is I found the names and the addresses of all members of the victims family. I knew that I needed to write these people and apologize. I wrote them, I apologized, and I told them, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause the death of your uncle, your brother, but I did do it. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me I would truly appreciate it. But if I were you, I wouldn’t forgive me. If I were you, I would throw this letter away.” Well, the very next week I begin to get letters back. They wrote me to say they were Christian people and we forgive you. And it wasn’t just lip service. You know, a lot of people say “I forgive you, but I don’t want to be around you — I forgive you but don’t talk to me.” We continued to write and for that whole time on death row — the whole sixteen-and-a-half years — we wrote letters back and forth.

Eventually I lost all appeals — even with my working on my case and other lawyers working on my case. I lost everything. In 1984 I got another execution date, which wasn’t the second one, it was like number ten or 15 by that time. I was put on deathwatch for three days. They had a seventy-two-hour death watch back then. I was sitting right next to the electric chair.

The correctional officers came to my cell, made me pack up all my stuff, took me to the captain’s office, and said, “This is your execution warrant. You have to read it and sign it and tell us you understand it. At 12:15 you are going to be executed. You’ve got to read this form and sign it and tell us what you want us to do with your body when we kill you. Then you have to sign this form and say whatever money you have in your account you can give it to the guards’ fund or you can give it to anybody — whatever you want to do.” So, they gave me a brand new uniform that I was going to be executed in and took my old clothes. They took me to deathwatch, which is basically a doublewide cell with two correctional officers that sit right in front of your cell. And what they did, what their job was to do was to watch you to make sure you don’t kill yourself — so that the state can kill you. Now ten years I’d been on death row. I had gotten sick — can’t see the doctor. You get on deathwatch, you get sick and the doctor will come to you. You cannot be sick and be executed. You got to be in good health to be killed.

So while I was there on death watch, going through the process of being put in this cell, the guards refusing to take the leg irons off and the hand cuffs off while I’m in the cell, two guards are watching me like I’m really going to do something. A captain came by, and he made them take the cuffs and stuff off. He said, “Billy, what do you need?” I said, “Well, I need my Bible, and I need my address book because my address book has all the names of people that I write and I pray for.” And he said, “Well, you aren’t supposed to have that stuff, but I’ll get it.” And he got it for me.

I’m asking God what do I do in this situation. Do I change, how do I respond in this situation? God was telling me, “Do the same thing that you do when you were on death row. When you get up in the morning at three o’clock and you pray and you pray for all your friends and then you study. Stay centered, don’t allow because you have been moved to another location to change your relationship with me. I’m the same. Just because you’re somewhere else doesn’t change the way our relationship is.”

I said all right, and I began to study. I began to continue to read, and the guards were upset with me because I would not let them watch T.V. When you’re on deathwatch, you get the option of watching television or of listening to the radio or read the newspapers. Well, I said I don’t want to see any of that stuff because I know they have my mug shot on T.V. and they’re saying, “Billy Moore pled guilty, he is guilty, he ought to be executed.” So I don’t need to hear that. I’m hearing that all the time. So when I didn’t want to watch T.V. they couldn’t turn it on. So they got mad at me and say, “Well, Billy, what makes you think that you’re not going to be executed — here is a list of thirteen people that have been executed.” Most of these guys were in a Bible study group that I had started on death row. They said, “Why do you think that they were killed and you’re not going to be killed?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to live or die. It’s not my choice. It’s God’s choice.”

They read everything each one of those men did. One of the things that helped me was one guy named Jerome Bowden, who had been executed. He wanted to get into the Bible study group that I had and he said, “Can I join?” I said, “Well, anybody can join. All we do is we read the Bible and we just discuss what we think it means to us and how we can apply it in our lives here on death row.” He said, “Well, I just want to listen.” I said, “No, everybody reads.” He said, “Well, I can’t read.” I said, “Well, we can remedy that, we got all this time doing nothing. I can teach you how to read and write.”

So I taught him how to read. He got moved to another cellblock in a month, and so I got moved to the cellblock where he was. He came to me and he said, “I got this letter, but I really don’t understand it. It’s a legal letter.” It was a letter from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. His case had been denied. It was being sent back to the superior court for a new execution date. So I explained to him what it was. We got it sent off to his lawyer, the lawyer filed a petition, and the judge said that if he is retarded, we won’t execute him. So he came to me and he showed me this letter. He said, “Listen, this is what my lawyer said that the judge said that they’re going to give me this test. And if I don’t pass this test I won’t be executed.” I said, “Jerome, listen to me, man. Everything I taught you — forget it. Forget it. When you take this test, everything that you know right, mark it wrong. This is not a test you want to pass.” He said, “But you don’t understand.” He said, “All of my life people made fun of me because I couldn’t read or write. All of my life I can never remember passing a test. If I can pass this test, I’m going to pass it.” I said, “Jerome, if you pass it they will kill you.” He said, “If I can pass this test?”

Well, the cut off score was 71; he got 70. And they executed him. And the guards are reading this to me and telling me the things that he said while he was on deathwatch. He was telling them how glad he was that he had accepted Christ, and his life had changed, that he had learned how to read and write, and how they had given him a special meal, how they gave him a new set of clothes before they executed him. But it made me feel better to know that the work that we had done had really changed his life. What we’re talking about when we’re talking about me is a person who is guilty whose life had been changed. There are many men on death row in Georgia whose life has been changed. Some were kids when they got there, and they matured. Their life has changed. Others have changed because of religious experience.

So, it’s just seven hours prior to my execution I was in the visiting room, and the guards told me and my sister, said, “Listen, hug him, kiss him, because we are going to take him back and shave his head, shave his leg, and we’re going to execute him.” The guards took me around the whole prison instead of just taking me right back to deathwatch. They walked me around the whole prison. By the time we got to death row — where we were not supposed to go — a sergeant came out and said, “He just got a stay.” Seven hours prior to the execution.

I pled guilty. There were no new issues. The 11th Circuit had already said we have heard this case three times; we don’t want to hear it anymore. Seven hours prior to the execution they stopped it. And for six years they argued, “Why did we stop it?” And finally I lose after the six years, and I get a new execution date.

My lawyers tell me that, “Your case is going to go to the parole board.” I said, “That’s fine.” What we found out is — when the victims family found out that my case was going to the parole board, they all got together, they got a bus, and everybody in their community who knew the man that I had killed, they all went to the parole board. They told members of the parole board, “Listen, Billy is our brother, and you cannot execute him.” Even a friend of mine who is a Jesuit priest that knew Mother Theresa, who had been in Calcutta, India, had called her and told her about my case, and the word got to the parole board that she wanted to talk to them. The parole board called her in India and asked her what did she want. She told them that they needed to do what Jesus would do.

They commuted my sentence from a death sentence to a life sentence and said that I would have to do twenty-five years before being eligible for parole. This was in ’90. I was sent to the state prison and in ’91. Just 13 months later, the 11th Circuit made another ruling, in a case not related to my case, that allowed me to come up for parole. As soon as my name came up for parole I was paroled out of prison. The same laws that the 11th Circuit made when it went to the Supreme Court, they changed it back. There were 3400 men in the state of Georgia that had life sentences that could have prospered from that law — but I was the only one that got out before the law was changed back.

I was listening earlier today when we were talking about how we need to put a face on capital punishment or to have someone to be a front person and go out and speak about capital punishment — that’s what I do. Ever since I’ve been out that’s what I do. I have been anywhere and any place that opened up the door and said would you come, can you come. I’m there. Because I want people to understand about capital punishment — how diabolical it is. But how people’s lives can be changed.

I think one of the hardest groups that I had to talk to, when I was in Massachusetts, was this group of six and seven year olds — explaining to them about capital punishment, about being executed. How do you tell a six-year old about capital punishment, when they have their whole life ahead of them and they’re not even thinking anything about killing anybody or being killed. But, see, God helped me to be able to talk to these kids. While I was sitting in the room waiting, we were waiting for one boy to show up. We had six kids in there, and we’re waiting for one boy to get there. All of a sudden the other kids starts saying, “Well, you know why Mike isn’t here. His head is so big it takes him so long to walk. He just can’t get here on time.” So they start talking about each other. When he comes in everybody starts laughing, and he knows something’s going on because everybody’s laughing — but not him. So I made the boy tell him what he said. I had him sit beside me because he was getting upset and he wanted to jump on him.

I said, “Listen, hold up. What we need to understand is how do people get to death row? How do people get into situations where they start killing each other and hurting each other? You think that it comes from the actual physical violence, but it doesn’t. It starts with the stuff that you said about this young man here. You violated him and his space by talking about him, and now he wants to retaliate on you for what you said.”

Then I explained to them people go to prison for breaking laws sometimes, and people are in prison before they get there. “What I need to explain to you kids is that peer pressure is prison. When you allow somebody else to control your thought process, when you allow somebody else to cause you to do things you didn’t want to do, you’re in prison. You just don’t have the bars but you’re confined. Because they have your ability to choose.” Well, you know the little kids are saying, “Hey, you know, nobody tells me what to do.” And just as soon as one boy said that the girl sitting over here said, “Oh, that’s not so because just yesterday at school they told you to do this and you did that ?” The rest of the group just busted up. Everybody was telling on each other. But it was good because it allowed them to begin to see how the type of influence pushes people in certain directions, how it steals their freedom, — and so in going in that direction and letting us know that people are confined a lot of times. I was in prison before I got to prison. Because my whole thought process was about money. My whole thought process was about money and I get it anyway that I need it. I didn’t care if you were Black, if you were white. If I was robbing and if I knew you had it, you were going to get robbed. Because that’s the way my thought process was. And so I was trying to get to these kids to understand that you don’t want to go to death row. But you’re not going to sit back and say, “Oh, I ain’t going on death row. I’m not going to do anything wrong.”  Nobody says, “Oh, when I grow up, I’m going to be a murderer. I’m going to go to death row.” Nobody does that.

[Let’s] look at capital punishment and look at how it’s applied — just in my situation. The sheriff ran Jefferson County, Georgia. I don’t care who you were, what you did — if you were not on the Sheriff’s side, whatever he said, that was the sentence that you got. I watched him for three years come into his jail and tell inmates exactly what sentence they would get before they went to court. Whether they had a jury, whether they pled guilty, they would get that sentence. And that’s not just in Jefferson County. But that’s all over Georgia.

Like the young man that was sitting in the back was saying, that prisons is so much related to slavery — all you have to do is go to a prison, and look at it’s structure. Slavery — you’ve got the masters house, you’ve got the overseers houses, you’ve got slave row. Prison — you’ve got the warden’s house and his assistants, guards live on the compound, the prison. There is no difference; it’s just legalized. And it’s just another tool to continue to oppress people.

The only thing that really helped me in getting out of prison is not only the victim’s family going to the parole board — one of the things that I did while I was on death row, and I didn’t do it to help me, I did it because it became an outreach ministry. I was writing thirty to forty letters everyday to people all around the country. People thought they were going to write me and say, “Oh, poor Billy Moore, well, he’s on death row, let me write to him and encourage him.” Well, that’s fine. But what happens is God turns the things around and allowed me to be able to help other people. When my case went to the parole board, there were people from all over the country and outside of the country going to the parole board — just saying the same as just here in this convention.

We have people gathering together to exchange ideas to come together to plot out a strategy of how to deal with capital punishment. And the more people that we can reach and explain what’s going on with capital punishment, the more people that we can get together. One of the things that Chief Justice Warren Berger said — anything in the constitution can be changed. He said people don’t believe that but this is a constitution that we have can be changed — because it’s for the people, by the people, and of the people. But the people have to speak up. If the people don’t speak up, then your politicians will make any rules any laws that they want to. As long as we are silent they are going to do what they want to — to us. But we have to, as we’re doing here, get together, speak up, and we have to organize and we have to let them know that we aren’t going to stand for it. Because it’s us that put them in office. It’s our money that they’re living off of. And if we don’t speak up and say something about it and do something about it, then we’re the ones at fault.

When we have our families and our friends and our loved ones that are on death row being killed and you know the majority of the murders — it’s 20 to 35,000 murders that happen in this country every year. But how come 25 to 200 people go to death row? What’s the difference? If a person gets killed in Ohio, and then in the neighboring state of Michigan, which doesn’t have capital punishment, is the life of a person that lives in Michigan less that a person that lives in Ohio? “Oh, we’re going to kill you because you live in Ohio — you must be better than if you live in Michigan.” But that’s not the case. You see if we don’t show the distinction, if we don’t let them know that this is not right, then who’s going to do it?

As Marlene was saying, it’s not our responsibility to offer them the life without parole. Just think about it. If they gave out life without any parole, everybody who has been found innocent would still be in prison. Because none of their cases would have been looked at. The only reason why their cases got the notoriety that it did is because they had the death sentence. But if you tell them and say, listen, this is what we want to do is eradicate capital punishment and give out life with no parole, we’re just beginning to warehouse people. They won’t have enough prisons to put people in.

When you put people in prison and you give them life with no parole — you know what you’re doing to people? You are turning them into animals. You’re not giving them any hope. You’re causing them to be put in a situation where there is no help, there is no hope, and they will be hostile. What is there to lose? There’s absolutely nothing to lose. But when you give a person hope, even if they had a life sentence and 200 years, and they know they’re not going to live 200 years, just because it has a number, it gives them hope. And hope causes people to change. And that’s what we want to do. We want to show that people in prison can change.

None of us are the worst thing that we ever did. But that’s what the courts want us to say, that we are the worst thing that we’ve ever done. When they look at us on death row they want to paint our pictures — these are the worst people in the state of Georgia. And the only thing that you can do to them is kill ’em. They give up on us. But as he was saying, don’t ever give up on yourself. I never gave up on myself. It is because other people believed in me; other people supported me — even though they knew I was guilty.

When you deal with me, as a person that was on death row, you have to look at the fact that — where do you really stand? Where do you really stand when you’re talking about me as a death row inmate? Because upfront I told you, I committed the crime and I’m guilty. So you can’t say, well, this is one that was innocent or this is one where his trial was messed up. Regardless of how the trial went, I did do the crime. So, I am guilty and I was on death row. Now it brings us to the point as a community, as a group — where do we really stand in dealing with people that have death sentences that are guilty? Where do we stand? Do we just help those that have been exonerated — and we should, we should be extremely upset about that — but what about the rest of us? What about folks like me? I need help too. And it comes from people that are against capital punishment, 100 percent against capital punishment that makes a difference.