Three decades after a bombing campaign claimed the life of a federal judge, set off panic and prompted a sprawling federal investigation, authorities in Alabama executed the now-83-year-old man convicted in the explosions.
The lethal injection of Walter Leroy Moody Jr. on Thursday night made him the oldest inmate put to death in the modern era. And in a sign of how death row populations are aging amid a nationwide decline in executions, Moody became the eighth inmate older than 65 put to death since the beginning of 2015.
The execution — which occurred at a correctional facility in Atmore, Ala., about 118 miles outside Montgomery, the capital — came in the wake of a recent string of bombings in Austin that evoked the 1989 explosions for which Moody was sentenced to death.
Moody, who maintained his innocence in the bombings, was convicted in 1991 on federal charges and then in 1996 on state charges. The FBI calls what followed the explosions “one of the largest cases in our history,” with investigators scouring the debris left behind and retracing where the packages had been as they hunted for clues.
Investigators eventually discovered that the 1989 bombings had their roots in an explosive device that went off more than a decade earlier, authorities said. Moody was convicted in 1972 of possessing a pipe bomb — the FBI said it detonated, injuring his wife — and was sentenced to three years in prison.
After that, Moody “declared war on the federal judiciary,” Alabama officials wrote in a court filing. They say Moody, who had attended law school, sought to have his conviction vacated, so he “bribed an acquaintance to give sworn testimony that a fictitious individual used by Moody as an alternate suspect in his 1972 trial actually existed.” The ploy did not work, the officials wrote.
Moody’s simmering anger toward the courts built until, authorities said, he mailed out four pipe bombs in 1989. One was shipped to the Alabama home of Robert Vance, a federal judge.
“When Judge Vance opened the pipe bomb delivered to his address he was killed almost instantly,” the Alabama attorney general’s office wrote in a court filing. “Helen Vance, Judge Vance’s wife, was seriously injured by shrapnel from the blast which included nails that had been secured to the pipe by rubber bands.”
Officials said another of Moody’s bombs killed Robert Robinson, a civil rights attorney in Georgia. Two more were found and disabled before they could hurt anyone — including one at a courthouse and another at NAACP offices in Jacksonville, Fla.
The mysterious bombings in December 1989 unnerved people about their package deliveries at Christmastime. Similar fears emerged in Austin recently when packages containing explosives killed two people and injured several others. And, as occurred years later in Austin, authorities investigating the 1989 bombings were initially baffled, suspecting early on that the attacks might have been fueled by racial hatred. Authorities would later say they believed Moody had picked some of his targets to try to make them believe racism or hate groups were involved.
Investigators went on to discover numerous similarities linking the explosives, including aspects of the bombs themselves, the packaging in which they were placed and even the “stamps depicting an American flag over Yosemite National Park,” according to Justice Department records.
When announcing that he had picked Louis J. Freeh to lead the FBI in 1993, President Bill Clinton singled out Freeh’s work as a special prosecutor investigating the 1989 bombings, calling it “one of the most notorious and difficult criminal cases of our day.”
As his scheduled lethal injection neared, Moody sought to have it stayed, arguing against Alabama’s ability to execute him because he was first sentenced on federal charges. In 1991, Moody was sentenced in federal court to seven life terms along with 400 years behind bars. Years later, after a trial in state court ended, Moody was found guilty, and the jury voted 11 to 1 that he be sentenced to death.
Moody’s attorneys said they were fighting “his unlawful custody status and the State of Alabama’s plan to execute him before he has satisfied his federal sentences.” This week, the Justice Department wrote in a court filing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the federal government waived its right to hold Moody in custody and consented to Alabama’s holding him so it could carry out the death sentence.
Moody unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to stop the execution. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — the justice assigned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which includes Alabama — had issued a temporary stay Thursday evening, but the court dissolved that stay a short time later. The court issued orders saying that Thomas had referred stay requests to the court and that it had denied them.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said Moody, who did not give a final statement, was pronounced dead at 8:42 p.m. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement Thursday night that Moody had “spent the better part of three decades trying to avoid justice. Tonight, Mr. Moody’s appeals finally came to a rightful end. Justice has been served.”
Vance’s son, Bob, told AL.com in a recent interview that he would not attend the execution. While Bob Vance said he has no doubts authorities found the bomber, to this day he still wonders why his father was targeted.
“That’s one of the real frustrating things about it because it’s almost a random chance,” Vance, a Jefferson County circuit judge running for the state Supreme Court, said in the interview. “The madman picks you out for some reason that only he and God knows and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Why my dad?”
Moody’s lethal injection followed a particularly high-profile case, but it also stood out for his age. Before Moody, the oldest inmate executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 was John Nixon, who was 77 when Mississippi executed him in 2005.
More than 2,800 people remain on death row nationwide at a time when states are carrying out fewer and fewer executions, with the count falling to 23 executions last year from a modern peak of 98 in 1999, according to Death Penalty Information Center records.
“Death row populations are getting older,” said Robert Dunham, the group’s executive director. “Octogenarian executions are going to remain extremely rare. It’s unprecedented in the modern era. It may happen again, but it will be rare. We’ve seen a series of executions of individuals in their 70s in the last couple of years, and that will become increasingly common.”
This year, the group’s records show, Georgia executed a 67-year-old. Last year, Alabama executed a 75-year-old who had previously faced the death chamber seven times. In 2016, Georgia executed a 72-year-old inmate — at the time, the oldest inmate on its death row — and Missouri executed another who was 66. A year earlier, executions of older death row inmates included one in Georgia (a 66-year-old), Missouri (a 74-year-old) and Texas (a 67-year-old).
In 2013, 12.2 percent of death-row inmates were 60 or older, according to Justice Department data. In 2007, that same population made up 5.8 percent of death row inmates.
Dunham said this will lead to more problems for the few states that still execute inmates, because “aging produces certain issues that complicate executions,” including health problems. Dunham cited the example of Alva Campbell, who was set to be executed by Ohio last year. The state eventually gave up after being unable to find a usable vein on the 69-year-old, who was in poor health; his execution was rescheduled for 2019, but he died last month from what corrections officials called natural causes.
A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment about whether the state approached Moody’s execution any differently because of his age. This year, Alabama’s execution of 61-year-old Doyle Hamm — convicted of killing Patrick Cunningham, a motel clerk, in 1987 — was called off after personnel tried and failed to find a vein in a process his attorney said was “torture.”
In Texas, the country’s leading death-penalty state, an inmate’s age “does not play a role in the execution process,” a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said. He noted that three of the eight people last executed in Texas were older than 60.
A case involving another geriatric death-row inmate in Alabama will soon make its way before the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices said this year that they would hear the case of Vernon Madison, who was convicted of killing Julius Schulte, a police officer in Mobile, Ala., in 1985. Madison’s attorneys have argued that he should be spared because, after suffering from multiple strokes, the 67-year-old “has no memory of the capital offense for which he is to be executed.”
This story has been updated after the execution was carried out.