- By Shelia M. Poole The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Billy Neal Moore spent 16 years on death row for killing a man. Today, he is an ordained minister who speaks to inmates about an act of forgiveness that saved his life.
William “Billy” Neal Moore stands in the gymnasium of the medium-security Floyd County Prison in Rome and meets the eyes of convicted thieves and drug dealers as they come into the room.
The prison, which has been in existence since the late 1800s, sits off a winding road on a bluff near the Coosa River. It houses about 420 inmates.
Many of the inmates hug Moore as they walk into the gym. A handful hold back, perhaps thinking any show of emotion is a sign of weakness they can’t afford in prison.
The soft-spoken Moore, a former welterweight who resembles Lovie Smith, former head coach of the Chicago Bears, is there for a three-day revival. He stands before the prisoners and cites a passage from the Bible.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Then he pauses and meets their gaze, looking from one to the other, directly in their eyes.
“Do you know what forgiveness is?” he asks them. Most of the men nod in response. But then Moore hits them with a question that makes many of them shift uncomfortably in their seats: What if someone murdered one of your family members? Could you forgive them then?
Moore was once on the other side of that question. He spent 16 1/2 years on death row after he confessed to murdering a man during an armed robbery nearly 40 years ago.
And it wasn’t until the family of his victim forgave him, that he could forgive himself.
It was an act that saved his soul and his life.
Wrens, population 2,100, sits 32 miles southwest of Augusta. Best known as home to Erskine Caldwell, author of “Tobacco Road” and “God’s Little Acre,” it’s the kind of small town that young people hightail it out of as soon as they get old enough.
It was 1974, and Moore was a 22-year-old Army specialist stationed at nearby Fort Gordon. He and his wife, who lived in Ohio, were having marital trouble, so he had brought his 2-year-old son, Billy, to live with him. But he had a problem paying his bills. He had authorized the Army to send his paychecks to his wife, and now he had fallen behind on his rent.
He needed money, and he needed it fast.
He heard about a man who carried a lot of cash, so late one warm night in April, while he was high on marijuana and Jack Daniels, Moore broke into the home of 77-year-old Fredger Stapleton. Moore was met with a shotgun blast and he fired back with his .38-caliber revolver, killing Stapleton. Moore rummaged around the house and found two wallets in a pair of pants under a pillow and stuck them in a pocket. Then he grabbed both guns and took off.
When Moore got home, he emptied out the wallets and discovered more than $5,000. But instead of elation, he was overcome with fear and shame.
He knew the cops would be coming for him, so he called his sister and asked her to come and get young Billy. Then he waited.
The killing shocked the small community, but no one was surprised.
Neighbor Hattie Johnson said her late husband used to warn Stapleton about carrying around so much money.
The sheriff and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrived the next day, and Moore confessed.
An officer said he would make sure Moore got the death penalty, but Moore said he didn’t care.
“It was totally devastating,” he said. “I had done something horrible.”
History repeats itself
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Moore was the youngest of five children. His mother, Margaret, was a beautician and his dad, James, whom he was particularly close to, worked at a steel mill. Moore has fond memories of waiting for his father to come home from work; his dad would save part of his lunch as a reward. “It was our little secret,” Moore said.
But one day when Moore was 4 years old, his father disappeared. “All of a sudden, he’s gone,” Moore said. His dad’s belongings were gone. His photos were gone. And his mother refused to discuss him.
Several years later, that Moore found out his dad was in prison.
When he got older, Moore often skipped class to visit his father until a prison official scolded him for cutting school. “Sooner or later you’re going to get in trouble and you will be in one of these places yourself,” he told Moore.
Moore was about 17 when his father was released. But when Moore’s father got out and returned home, the two butted heads. For years, Moore had taken on more responsibility at home. Now here was his father trying to tell him what to do. It was clear there wasn’t room for two strong-willed men, so Moore left and eventually joined the Army. Before shipping off to Germany, though, he married his long-time girlfriend, who had recently discovered she was pregnant.
By the time Moore landed at Ft. Gordon three years later, his marriage was falling apart and his son was living with him. And now he was headed to prison, repeating the pattern set by his father.
Faith and forgiveness
Those first few hours in jail were desperate ones for Moore.
“My heart was killing me,” he said. “There was no way I could fix this. When you take someone’s life, you can’t give it back. Not only had I killed a man, but I hurt his family. I destroyed my son’s life and hurt my family.”
He was so grief-stricken by his actions, he borrowed a razor from a fellow inmate and contemplated slitting his throat. He wasn’t a religious man, but Moore said he heard a voice that said killing himself would not relieve him of his guilt, shame or pain and would just be taking another life.
On July 17, 1974, Moore was sentenced to death. Execution was set for Sept. 13, 1974.
A cousin in Ohio told Moore he needed to get right with the Lord, but Moore wasn’t hearing it — he was preparing to die. But a week before Moore’s date with the electric chair, Pastor Nealon Guthrie of Rome paid the prisoner a visit at the request of a pastor in Ohio. When the minister arrived, Moore and some other inmates were playing cards through the bars for nickels, dimes and pennies.
“My eyes fell on him and I said, 'My God, that could be my son,’ ” said Guthrie, who still maintains a fatherly relationship with Moore. The two men bonded immediately. “I could tell he was very remorseful. He didn’t try to blame anybody. He was never resentful. He just said he was sorry.”
Guthrie told Moore that although a judge in Georgia had sentenced him to death, there was a “just judge named Jesus Christ” who “died to save people like you.” He told Moore that somehow God would bring him through this trying time. Then they prayed together, and before Guthrie left that day, he baptized Moore in a prison bathtub with two trustee inmates as witnesses.
Moore said he felt a peace that he had never experienced before. It “freed me from a lot of the pain I had been carrying for years,” he said.
Moore’s execution date came and went, and three days later he received a letter from his lawyer. He had neglected to advise Moore that there is an automatic appeal for death penalty cases. Moore fired the lawyer and decided to represent himself.
He requested a copy of the police report and discovered it contained the names and addresses of the victim’s family. And then he did something that changed the course of his life. He wrote to Stapleton’s niece, Sara Stapleton Farmer, and apologized for killing her uncle.
The letter was simple but hard to write.
“I want you to know that I am truly sorry for all the pain and suffering that I have caused each one of you,” Moore wrote. “And if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me, I really would truly appreciate it. But if you don’t, I understand because I don’t forgive myself for the terrible suffering I have brought you all.”
A week later he received a response. “Dear Billy,’ she wrote, “we are Christians and we forgive you and pray to God for your soul and hope for the best in your life.”
Moore was stunned.
“This was showing me this is what real Christian people do,” he said. “That really helped me because I’m still hurting and I’m writing to hurting people. And they’re helping me.”
Then he began to wonder: How do you do that? How do you get to that place of forgiveness? He wrote back and thus began a letter-writing relationship that lasted for many years. Stapleton’s family even fed and housed Moore’s family members and legal team when they came to visit him in prison.
“It took them six years of writing me to get me to the point I could forgive myself,” Moore said.
Stapleton’s family has rarely spoken publicly about the murder and several refused comment or didn’t return calls for this story. But Sara Farmer’s son, Harold Farmer, 60, indicated that Moore’s remorse and faith helped the family forgive his actions.
“It’s not my role to judge him,” said Farmer. “I’m not God. If he asked for forgiveness from the Lord, confessed to what he did and made a new beginning, I’m all with that. The way I look at it, when Judgment Day comes he’s going to be judged by what he did or didn’t do.”
People can be cynical about jailhouse conversions, but Moore seemed sincere. He became an ordained minister via online coursework through Aenon Bible College.
He led a study group for other inmates. He prayed with them. He baptized some. He became known as a peacemaker, settling disputes between inmates.
Even some of the guards, who used to hassle him, started leaving him alone.
His death penalty case began to receive national attention as his execution was postponed 13 times over the course of 16 years. Not only did world famous death penalty opponents including Mother Teresa speak out on Moore’s behalf, but members of Stapleton’s family also begged for clemency.
Nevertheless, his appeals continued to be denied. Eventually all of his appeals were exhausted, and his execution was set for Aug. 22, 1990. But 20 hours before his scheduled execution, Moore’s sentence was commuted to life by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole.
“This was a heinous crime and we do not excuse the conduct,” then-parole board chairman Wayne Snow Jr. told the New York Times. “But to say the least, the board was impressed that we had the family of the victim urging clemency. That is not something we often see.”
Moore was released from Reidsville State Prison in 1991.
“God was with me all the time,” he said.
A life renewed
The old Billy Moore no longer exists. The new Billy Moore travels the world telling his story to churches, colleges, prisons and high schools. He’s spoken to Yale University, Berry College, Cambridge University and Amnesty International. He talks about redemption, forgiveness and faith, and he has become a much sought-after death penalty opponent.
When Moore speaks to a class, students are spellbound, said Stephen B. Bright, senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“It’s important for students to hear from someone who is actually guilty,” said Bright. “Billy is a living demonstration that there is such a thing as redemption. Somebody can be involved in committing a very bad act and spend the rest of his life doing very good things.”
For Moore it’s payback.
“I think about (Stapleton and his family) all the time,” said Moore. “That is one of the reasons I do what I do. It helps to pay back what they gave to me to help keep young people from getting into trouble and so they can stay out of prison.”
Moore met his second wife, Donna Jacks-Moore, who is also a minister, during a 1992 Pentacostal Assemblies of the World national convention in Chicago. Her daughter and a fellow church member had told her about this man with a “miracle testimony.”
She had no apprehension about meeting a once-convicted murderer.
“It was exciting to me to see a living miracle,” she said.
The couple live in Rome with two of her adult daughters and a granddaughter.
Moore hasn’t seen his son in many years. He is currently serving a prison sentence in Ohio for robbery.
“He’s studying the Bible,” Moore said.
Moore and his wife have formed Christ Assembly Evangelistic Ministries, and he has written a book and made a couple DVDs about his life and the case.
When he speaks to inmates, he talks about life on the outside and how it can be different when they’re released.
He feels most alive when talking with people who think they don’t have many options.
“This allows me to teach them what real forgiveness is, what God has done for us and what a family did for me,” Moore said. “Not only did they forgive me, but they went to the parole board and said that I was their brother and the state cannot kill me.”
Sara Farmer died last year, but not before she was able to speak one last time with Moore, who was traveling in Spain.
Moore told her that the story about her family’s forgiveness was being heard around the world.
“Every place I go, I talk about Sara Farmer and her family and I put out a challenge: 'Are you open to this type of forgiveness?’”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Shelia Poole, one of our veteran features writers, has long gravitated to stories that plumb thorny moral issues. She came across today’s story about Billy Moore and saw an opportunity to explore the notion of forgiveness. She observed Moore telling his story to Georgia prisoners in Rome, and interviewed him in his home. She also tracked down a relative of the man he murdered, and visited the Georgia town where the crime occurred. It’s a provocative story that will leave you asking questions of your own.
Assistant Managing Editor
About the reporter
Shelia M. Poole has worked at The Atlanta Journal Constitution for more than two decades, covering business, nonprofit organizations, faith and general assignments. Previously, she worked at The Lexington Herald-Leader. She received degrees from Spelman College and Northwestern University.
About the photographer
Phil Skinner has been a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories. Previously he worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Boca Raton News, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Jupiter Journal.