Walter Moody has been executed for 1989 mail-bomb slaying

Walter Leroy Moody, Jr. (Photo: ADOC)

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) —  Alabama has executed the oldest U.S. inmate to be put to death in modern times, an 83-year-old man convicted of a federal judge’s mail-bomb slaying.

Authorities say Walter Leroy Moody Jr. was pronounced dead at 8:42 p.m. CDT Thursday after a lethal injection. He made no final statement and did not respond when a prison official asked him if he had any last words.

The non-profit Death Penalty Information Center says Moody became the oldest inmate put to death in the United States since the resumption of U.S. executions in the 1970s. Moody was convicted of killing U.S. Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance of Birmingham, who died when he opened a package mailed to his home in 1989.

Prosecutors have described Moody as a meticulous planner who committed murder by mail because of his obsession with getting revenge on the legal system. He also was convicted in federal court for a bombing that killed Robert E. Robinson, a black civil rights attorney from Savannah, Georgia.

After being notified that the sentence had been carried out, Governor Kay Ivey released the following statement:

“I approach every execution by giving the condemned, and the issues raised by the underlying case, the careful consideration both deserve. My ultimate desire is to see justice rightly administered.

“Mr. Moody was convicted of killing Federal Judge Robert Vance and severely injuring Judge Vance’s wife with a bomb purposefully created to kill and maim. The crimes committed by Mr. Moody were intentional, well-planned and aimed at inflicting the most possible harm. A jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and his conviction has been upheld at every level of the judicial system.

“For our system of government to work properly, the judiciary must be able to operate without undue outside influence. By targeting and murdering a respected jurist, Mr. Moody not only committed capital murder, he also sought to interrupt the flow of justice. After considering the facts of his horrendous and intentional crime, I have allowed Mr. Moody’s sentence to be carried out in accordance with the laws of this state and in the interest of ensuring justice for the victim and his family.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall also issued a statement following the execution:

“Nearly 30 years ago, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert Vance was brutally slain when a pipe bomb sent to his Birmingham home exploded.  Walter Leroy Moody was convicted of Judge Vance’s murder in both federal and state courts. Even though he was also convicted of a similar pipe bomb death of a Georgia attorney, 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.”

Judge Robert S. Vance, a member of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was at his kitchen table in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on Dec. 16, 1989, when he opened a package after a morning of errands and yard work.

The explosion ripped through the home near Birmingham, killing Vance instantly and severely injuring his wife, Helen. Prosecutors said Moody, who had attended law school, had a grudge against the legal system because the 11th Circuit refused to overturn a 1972 pipe-bomb possession conviction that prevented him from practicing law.

Authorities said Moody mailed out a total of four package bombs in December 1989. A device linked to Moody killed Robert E. Robinson, a black civil rights attorney from Savannah, Georgia. Two other mail bombs were later intercepted and defused, including one at an NAACP office in Jacksonville, Florida. Authorities said those bombs were meant to make investigators think the crimes were racially motivated.

Moody was first convicted in 1991 in federal court and sentenced to seven life terms plus 400 years. He was later convicted in state court in 1996 and sentenced to death for Vance’s murder.


Vance’s son, Robert Vance Jr., now a circuit judge in Jefferson County and Democratic candidate for chief justice in Alabama, said it’s important that people remember how his father lived, not just how he died.

“He was a great judge, a great lawyer before that, and a great father,” he said.

Friends said the senior Vance quietly fought for the rights of underprivileged as both a jurist and a politician.

As chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party in the 1960s and early 1970s, Vance worked to bring African-Americans into the party and fought then-Gov. George C. Wallace’s and other segregationists effort to control the party machinery, said Al LaPierre, who worked for Vance in the 1970s.

“He believed the Democratic Party should be open and not be the party of George Wallace and the Dixiecrats,” LaPierre said.

Moody had sent a letter from death row to the younger Vance claiming he was the innocent victim of a government conspiracy. “Had my Dad been murdered, I would want to know who had done it,” Moody wrote. Vance said he tossed the letter in the trash.

The younger Vance, who does not plan to witness the execution, said he had to make peace with his father’s death, but said he has no doubt that Moody is guilty. Moody, he said, fits the definition of a psychopath.

In the effort to spare his life, Moody’s attorneys raised his victim’s personal opposition to the death penalty in their request for clemency from Gov. Kay Ivey, which was denied.

“The murder of Judge Vance was unprovoked and inexcusable. Judge Vance was, by all accounts, a devoted husband, caring father, and remarkable jurist. He was also, by all accounts, an opponent of capital punishment,” a lawyer for Moody wrote.

The younger Vance said his father also upheld death sentences because he believed in following the law.

“The point to emphasize is my Dad was personally opposed to the death penalty but always made clear that his personal feelings had to give way to the law,” Vance said.