Former death row inmate Billy Moore

"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.