The Reform of a Murderer

Forgiveness, not prison, helped one man change his ways

When one person kills another, as a society we hope that the murderer regrets the act and makes the necessary changes in order not to repeat the behavior. That’s partly the logic behind locking them up in prison: to avoid a repeat offense.

But the true test of our collective hope is how we respond to murderers who do return to everyday life. In the case of William Moore, Cincinnati had a chance to see a success story in action Sept. 14 thanks to a collaboration between the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center and Xavier University, which brought him to town to speak about his life’s turnaround.

“Dealing with the fact that I killed somebody was very hard for me to handle,” Moore says. “After my appeals began, I fired my attorney … and began to represent myself. Some of the paperwork that I got from the police and the court concerning my case had the names and addresses of the victim’s family. I wrote them and apologized and (said) if they could find it in their heart to forgive me I’d appreciate it.

“They wrote me back saying that they considered they were Christian people and that they do forgive me and that I should do something positive with the rest of my life that I have.”

That was the beginning of a 16-year correspondence between Moore and the people he now calls “like family” and the start of his commitment to make a difference.

“Just the fact of them saying that they forgave me was such a dynamic impact on me that it helped me to change my life to want to use the rest of my life for helping other people with whatever I had left,” Moore says. “It gave me the desire to want to help other inmates. … My whole existence on Death Row was teaching inmates how to read, helping other inmates in any way that I could. When you’re helping others — doing stuff for other inmates or helping other people — it makes living there just a little bit more bearable.”

Reminders of being under a death sentence are incessant, Moore says. From “Death Row” stamped on his clothes and on his mail to the guards calling prisoners “Death Row inmates,” it’s impossible to have a moment of peace while you wait to die.

“It was torture,” he says. “You’re there with other guys, you get to know them and then they get executed. It’s torture because you’re constantly living under the shadow of death, and there’s a spirit of death on Death Row. It’s a cold, eerie feeling in the building.” At one point Moore was “on death watch,” just seven hours from execution, when an appeals court stayed his death. The 16th time an execution date was set, he got the “miracle” those on Death Row pray for.

“I met a guy named John Dear, he’s a Catholic Jesuit priest now, but when I met John he had just graduated (from) college and was between going to Jesuit school,” Moore says. “He started to come visit and later on he spent a year or two in India with Mother Theresa, and while he was there he told her about his visiting me and my case. I had an execution date on Aug. 22, 1990 … and John had told Mother Theresa about it and asked her to call the parole board. She told John that she had taken a vow of poverty and did not have the finances to call the U.S.

“Word … was transmitted to the parole board that Mother Theresa wanted to talk to them; the chairman of the parole board called her and asked her what did she want. She told him he needed to do what Jesus would do.”

The parole board commuted Moore’s sentence to life, and within a year he was eligible for parole. Since his release in 1991 he’s been true to his commitment to his adopted family: He’s become an ordained minister and travels the country talking to young people, prisoners, church groups and anyone who wants to benefit from his experiences with the death penalty.

Why does he choose to speak out?

“I do it because I’m opposed to the death penalty,” Moore says. “I’m trying to bring awareness to the injustice of the death penalty and Death Row. The only way I believe people can believe and see that is to hear it from someone who’s been through the legal system, someone who lived on Death Row and has seen the system in action and has come within seven hours of being executed.”

Beyond that, he wants to make a positive impact by sharing the lessons he’s learned as a result of his bad choices. He talks with inmates to tell them how they can bring about positive change in their lives while in jail. He talks with kids in juvenile detention as well as those who are in schools and on street corners.

Moore isn’t afraid to meet kids where they’re at, however uncomfortable that message might seem to others.

“I am working to try to get the kids off the corners and get them away from selling drugs and violence,” he says. “I tell them, ‘If you can stand here on the corner and sell drugs — approach people and talk to people — then you have some skill in communication. You have a management skill: buying drugs, selling drugs, upping prices, getting stock. You just don’t know how to apply them in an honorable way.’

”I talk to kids at school and try to get them to understand the importance of their choices that they have to make.

Every choice you make has some sort of consequence to it.”

Moore says he’ll continue to talk about the death penalty and do whatever he can to live up to his word to do some good with the rest of his life.

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