Alabama Executes Walter Leroy Moody, Perpetrator of Racist Bombing Spree

If we're going to have a death penalty, he was its poster boy.

As argued here many times over the years, my longtime home state of Alabama’s record of botched executions is a perhaps Exhibit A as to why the death penalty ought be abolished.

Those who read only CNN‘s coverage of the latest execution (“83-year-old executed in Alabama is oldest inmate put to death in modern US history“) would come away with that view strengthened:

Alabama has executed Walter Leroy Moody, 83, who had been convicted of murder for the mail bombing death of a federal judge in 1989.

Moody is the oldest person put to death since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to figures compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Earlier Thursday, the Supreme Court denied the appeals from Moody’s attorney after temporarily delaying his death by lethal injection.

Moody was convicted in 1996 for the murder of federal Judge Robert Vance in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Moody has 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,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said.

Moody’s attorneys had appealed to the Supreme Court after Alabama’s high court denied his petition for a stay of execution.

He was convicted in Alabama for sending a bomb that killed Vance, a federal appeals court judge. Moody, according to prosecutors, sought revenge on the court and the judge because they had previously refused to overturn his conviction in a 1972 bomb possession case.

He also was convicted in federal court in 1991 for killing Vance and for the bombing death of Robert Robinson, an NAACP attorney in Savannah, Georgia. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Moody had maintained he was framed.

Executing an 83-year-old man seems pointless and barbaric. But Moody’s is a special case.

NPR‘s report (“Alabama Executes Serial Bomber Walter Leroy Moody, 83“) makes that much more clear:

Moody built shrapnel-sheathed bombs hidden in packages rigged to explode when opened. In 1989, one of those bombs killed 11th Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance at his home in Mountain Brook, Ala., and two days later, another bomb killed civil rights attorney Robert E. Robinson at his office in Savannah, Ga. The Alabama bomb also seriously injured the judge’s wife, Helen Vance.

Two other bombs were intercepted before they could hurt anyone — one at the main 11th Circuit courthouse in Atlanta and another at the NAACP’s office in Jacksonville, Fla. The devices bore similarities — including the same type of powder, batteries and rubber bands that secured nails on the bombs’ exteriors — that led forensics experts to conclude they were made by the same person

Around the time of the attacks, an Atlanta television station received a letter threatening more attacks on judges, attorneys and NAACP leaders.

As his case has wound through the legal system and exhausted a string of appeals, Moody has often acted as his own attorney — including when he petitioned that same 11th Circuit Court for a writ of habeas corpus, triggering his plea to the Supreme Court.

In addition to targeting the NAACP, Moody declared a deadly “war on the federal judiciary,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a filing to the Supreme Court in response to Moody’s petition.

Prosecutors say the 1989 attacks stemmed from Moody’s 1972 conviction for possessing a pipe bomb that exploded in his home, injuring his wife. He served three years in federal prison.

That early attempt at a pipe bomb would later prove to be Moody’s undoing: The same federal expert who worked to defuse one of the bombs Moody sent in 1989 recalled seeing similar work in Georgia years earlier. That put investigators onto Moody’s trail, and he was arrested late the next year.

Marshall, the attorney general, said Moody had attended law school and was obsessed with getting his 1972 conviction overturned so he could practice law. When Moody appealed the verdict in the 1980s, prosecutors say he concocted alternate evidence and testimony. He also petitioned a federal district court to vacate the conviction.

That court turned down the petition — and the 11th Circuit “affirmed the denial of that relief in June 1989,” Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court filing.

That same summer, Moody and his then-girlfriend, Susan McBride Samford, began amassing the tools and materials he would need to build bombs.

First came a tear-gas bomb that hit the regional NAACP office in Atlanta in August. Then, in December, the four pipe bombs were mailed to their targets, including Vance and Robinson, both prominent and well-respected men.

Robinson had helped desegregate a beach near Savannah as a teenager in the 1960s. He later became a city alderman and “was considered one of Savannah’s rising stars,” as local TV WSAV has reported.

Vance “was a lawyer here in Birmingham,” his son, Bob, said in a recent video by Bob Vance, who is now a county circuit court judge, added that his father was “also very involved politically in the Democratic Party, back in the day when it was struggling with the issues of civil rights.”

Moody was tried in both federal and state courts. He was convicted of dozens of counts, from murder to obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to serve consecutive life terms without parole. In February 1997, he was sentenced to death by an Alabama circuit court in Birmingham.

The NYT report (“Alabama Executes Mail Bomber, 83, the Oldest Inmate Put to Death in Modern Era“) was also damning:

Mr. Moody’s reign of terror — deadly bombings and thwarted attacks in three Southern states, as well as menacing letters to judges and the media — raised fears of racial violence and unsettled the federal judiciary. His complex case drew in people who would become household names of American law enforcement: Louis J. Freeh, a future F.B.I. director; Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; and Jeff Sessions, now the United States attorney general.

Though Mr. Moody was found guilty on scores of federal charges, his execution was punishment for a 1996 state court conviction for the murder of Judge Robert S. Vance Sr. of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Judge Vance’s son, Robert S. Vance Jr., himself a judge in Alabama, said Thursday that he had not forgiven Mr. Moody because “he has not acknowledged any remorse or any acknowledgment that he was guilty.”

“I’m not a psychiatrist, but if you’re talking about using labels like psychopath, this seems to be the kind of person that would fit that description because of absolute lack of empathy or concern for others,” Judge Vance said.

Mr. Moody was pronounced dead at 8:42 p.m. on Thursday inside a South Alabama prison, ending a generations-long legal drama that began in 1972, when he planned a bombing against an automobile dealer who had repossessed his car.

His unsuccessful efforts to have his conviction overturned in that case stirred a protracted rage against the 11th Circuit, which has jurisdiction in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, Mr. Moody’s home state. After the 11th Circuit rejected Mr. Moody’s appeal in August 1989, the court noted in a subsequent ruling, he began trying to develop “war gases” and prepared what he termed a “Declaration of War” against the appellate court.

In December 1989, Mr. Moody mailed a parcel with a bomb — steel pipe, smokeless powder and 80 finishing nails — to the suburban Birmingham home of Robert Vance Sr., who had only considered Mr. Moody’s appeal when it was before the full court. The bomb exploded when Judge Vance opened the package, killing him and gravely injuring his wife.

Another bomb two days later killed Robert E. Robinson, an African-American lawyer in Savannah, Ga. Officials also intercepted a device that was sent to the 11th Circuit’s offices in Atlanta, as well as a bomb that was mailed to a Florida office of the N.A.A.C.P.

Prosecutors believed Mr. Moody disguised his motive by using the name of a fictitious group when he vowed to kill judges and railed against African-Americans and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit’s treatment of them.

Moody was a horrible human being who devoted his free life to murdering those who fought for freedom. If we’re going to have capital punishment, he’s its poster boy. That he was able to drag this out in court for decades, alas, is further evidence for why we should not.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mattbernius says:

    If we’re going to have capital punishment, he’s its poster boy. That he was able to drag this out in court for decades, alas, is further evidence for why we should not.

    You are completely correct that he was a contemptible human being. However, given the fallibility and bias in our criminal justice system, I would not remove a single one of those legal checks that he used to delay his execution.

    All of that, is also why I’d much rather see the total elimination of the death penalty (even if there are people out there who truly deserve it).

  2. Chish says:

    Speaking of executions, is that little Tsarnaev puke ever going to get his?

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    End the death penalty now. I don’t care that there are people deserving of it. They can spend the rest of their useless lives rotting in solitary. I care that there are people who in no way, shape, or form are deserving of it and receive it anyway.

  4. Franklin says:

    Death can be preferable to life. At least most of us argue that when we talk about euthanasia.

    If guys like Moody are truly guilty, let them suffer in solitary confinement – sounds worse than death to me. On the other hand, for those who aren’t truly guilty, they can at least have hope (which is something) and we’ll maintain the possibility of reversing the sentence at some point.

  5. teve tory says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Yep. If you support the death penalty, you’re fine with the state occasionally executing innocent people.

    (And you’re probly a republican: Stupid people with shitty values.)

  6. Kathy says:

    I’ve often wondered what the death penalty does to the people who administer it.

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @Franklin:..Death can be preferable to life.

    Confessed killer found dead at Perry Co. Jail
    Carl Dane, 19, of Pinckneyville was pronounced dead at 5 a.m. in his cell at the Perry County Jail in Pinckneyville Friday.
    Carl Dane’s Attorney Brian Trentman says, he was told they believe Dane killed himself.
    Today Dane was set to be taken to Menard Correctional Center to begin serving a 60-year-sentence for the murder of 15-year Sidnee Stephens.
    Dane has confessed to going to Stephens’ home and choking her until she passed out. He then drove her to a bridge on Cudgetown Road that crosses Beaucoup Creek in central Perry County, where he shot her and left her body.

    So did citizen Carl finally do the right thing?

  8. Franklin says:

    @Mister Bluster: Not enough info for me.

  9. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I respectfully disagree that he is a poster child for keeping the death penalty. To me, it should be used when there is absolutely no doubt about guilt, not just because someone has been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. Someone like Ted Bundy qualifies, his guilt established not just by a mountain of evidence but by his own words (in bragging about his killings) and actions (in leading law enforcement to other victims). Or John Wayne Gacy–finding 26 bodies buried under his own house and thinking he didn’t do it would require delusional levels of conspiracy theorizing.

    In this case Moody claimed to be innocent and that he was framed, and while I’m 99.999999% sure he’s lying about both, there’s no DNA, or video, or confession, or anything else incontrovertible–and note I don’t think any one of those alone qualifies for the death penalty either (confessions have been forced, DNA planted, and video altered). It should require a mountain of evidence (with an incontrovertible chain of custody) , not just the desire to punish someone for a hideous crime, before the state kills a citizen.

    Yes I know this standard would make executions extraordinarily rare. Good. We know innocent people have been convicted of crimes and locked up for decades or executed–the latter represents the ultimate power of the state over the individual and you can’t just say “oops” when it turns out the state was wrong.

    And while this isn’t as important to me as the above, it would also be cheaper to have him in prison for life, instead of in prison for decades plus adding legal bills to fight his death penalty sentence.

  10. TM01 says:

    @teve tory:
    And you wonder why we can’t all just get along.

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    @Tiny Mind 0.0000000000000000001:..just get along.

    Nothing to wonder about. A lot of it has to do with citizens like you who support a self confessed sexual molestor of women. You know, your pussy grabbing boyfriend Donald Trump.