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 and meets the eyes of convicted thieves and drug dealers as they come into the room. 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 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?”
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…
In 1974 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 to live with him. But he had a problem paying his bills. He had previously authorized the Army to send his paychecks to his wife, and now it would take 90 days to make the change. But he did not have 90 days. He had fallen behind on his rent, was running out of food, and needed money fast. Billy sought help from various charities and pled with the military to speed up the process of getting his funds to him, but no one could help.
He heard about a man who carried a lot of cash. Moore had no criminal record, but 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 his little son. Then he waited…
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.
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. But a week before Moore’s date with the electric chair, Pastor Nealon Guthrie paid the prisoner a visit. 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. “I was 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. 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…
People can be cynical about jailhouse conversions, but Moore seemed sincere. He became an ordained minister through Aenon Bible College. He led a Bible 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,” said then-parole board chairman Wayne Snow Jr. “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.
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.
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…”
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.
Sara Farmer died last year, but not before she was able to speak one last time with Moore. 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?’”
“Christ forgave me and the same way and the same power is extended to everyone. A lot of people think that I’m special and that God’s done something special for me. But when we look at it, He did something special for all of us when He died on the cross. As He said, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’”