By Christopher Zoukis
On April 19, the state of Alabama executed by lethal injection Walter Leroy Moody, Jr., for the 1989 mail-bombing murder of federal appeals court judge Robert Vance. Moody had been convicted of murders in both federal and Alabama courts.
At age 83, Moody was the oldest Death Row inmate executed in this country after capital punishment was resumed in the mid-1970’s. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Furman v. Georgia in 1972 invalidated all state capital punishment laws, finding a lack of standards for invoking that penalty made it too arbitrary to survive the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the high court reinstated the death penalty where states had developed procedures that kept the death penalty from being either excessive or disproportionate to the crime being punished.
In a 1972 incident, Moody’s wife Hazel was seriously injured when she opened a package she found in the kitchen of her home; it turned out to contain a homemade pipe bomb. Her husband was charged with having made it to use in an extortion plot directed at the car dealer who had repossessed his vehicle; Moody was not convicted of making the bomb, but was found guilty of possessing it and sentenced to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he spent three years. (Hazel quickly divorced him.)
According to a state prosecutor, Moody nurtured resentment over the conviction, and at the refusal of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit federal appeals court to overturn it (Moody had a legal education, and a long personal history of litigiousness, but the conviction prevented him from practicing law).
In December 1989, 11th Circuit judge Richard S. Vance was sitting at the kitchen table in his home near Birmingham, Alabama, opening mail. A sudden explosion killed the judge instantly and severely injured his wife; a homemade pipe bomb rigged to spray sharp shrapnel had done the damage.
The following year, Moody and his new wife were arrested and charged by federal prosecutors (including later FBI chief Louis Freeh, named a special prosecutor) with a variety of crimes connected with the mail bombing, including murder.
To avoid conflict of interest, the trial was moved to Minnesota; with his new wife testifying against him, Moody was convicted not only of Judge Vance’s murder, but also of another fatal mailbombing, two days after Vance’s, of an African-American civil rights lawyer in Savannah. He was also convicted on charges related to other, unexploded bombs that were sent to the 11th Circuit in Atlanta and to a NAACP office in Georgia. Convicted on all counts, Moody drew seven life sentences, plus 400 years.
In 1996, a jury in Alabama also convicted Moody for murdering Vance; he drew a death sentence, and from that time on had been on death row at Holman state prison near Atmore, Alabama. For most of the nearly three decades following Judge Vance’s murder, Moody pursued a variety of legal tactics in attempts to undo his varied convictions. Moody’s lawyers argued, for example, that Alabama could not execute him until he had completed his federal sentence (seven life terms, plus 400 years). They also sought clemency for Moody on the grounds Judge Vance, his victim, had personally opposed capital punishment.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.