Some district attorneys in Georgia don’t want defendants awaiting death penalty trials to get visits in jail from convicted murderers.
The use of at least one former death row inmate as a contract employee with the state-funded office that represents indigent defendants in capital cases has created a minor controversy and prompted Hall County’s district attorney to write to the circuit’s four Superior Court judges regarding the practice.
William "Billy" Neal Moore of Rome was granted clemency in 1991 by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles for the 1974 home invasion murder of a 77-year-old Jefferson County man during an attempted robbery. He now works on a contract basis as a mitigation specialist for the state Office of the Georgia Capital Defender. Mitigation specialists interview defendants’ family members and conduct other background investigations to try to find facts about clients’ lives that could help the defense in the penalty phases of capital trials.
Moore, according to a Web site promoting his book "I Shall Not Die: Seventy-Two Hours on Death Watch," does not deny he committed the murder. He said he was forgiven by the victim’s family and found religion while on death row. He served 17 years in prison before his November 1991 release.
When a judge in recent months granted Moore unrestricted access to visit a death penalty defendant in an Augusta jail, the district attorney there didn’t find out until a sheriff’s official informed her that Moore’s murder conviction was a violation of security rules for visitors.
The Richmond County judge granted an "ex parte" motion allowing Moore visitation, meaning that a defense request was made without the prosecution present. Ex parte hearings are held to allow the defense to make a request of the court without revealing its trial strategy to the prosecution. Most ex parte hearings involve requests for funding for experts and other defense costs.
Richmond County District Attorney Ashley Wright, after learning of Moore’s employment with the Office of the Capital Defender, notified other prosecutors across the state through an e-mail.
"I just find it a little bit offensive to employ a killer for a killer," Wright said Wednesday.
Wright added that another former death row inmate, Shareef Cousin, was recently employed by the Capital Defender’s office in a Douglas County case. Cousin was convicted and sentenced to death for a 1995 Louisiana murder but his conviction was overturned on appeal.
After learning that a convicted murderer was employed by the Office of the Capital Defender, Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh sent an e-mail to the Northeastern Judicial Circuit’s four Superior Court judges, according to court filings in the pending death penalty case of Allan Robert Dickie. There is no indication that Moore has worked on Dickie’s case.
Darragh, in his e-mail, wrote he would have no way of knowing if an ex parte defense request had been made in Hall County regarding Moore, but that if one ever was, "the state objects to his involvement in any way as a ‘mitigation specialist’ or in any other capacity for the Georgia Capital Defenders Office or for anyone else representing any criminal defendants in this circuit."
Darragh also expressed the view that a decision on whether certain people can have unrestricted jail access to defendants is not one that should be made without both sides having a chance to argue their positions.
"The danger presented by a convicted murderer having unrestricted access to a death penalty defendant makes this point obvious, in my opinion," Darragh wrote.
Jerry Word, director of the Office of the Capital Defender, said he was aware of the controversy.
"I am aware that some district attorneys have expressed the opinion that because a man sinned once, he can’t possibly be redeemed and be a decent human being," Word said Wednesday.
Word called Moore "a good Christian man" and said the concern expressed by some district attorneys was "extremely puzzling to me."
"I know people can commit acts and turn their lives around, and I know the Reverend Moore, and I know he has done that," Word said. "Probably the district attorneys aren’t aware of that."
Moore did not return a phone message left at his Rome home seeking comment.
Richard Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said it wasn’t the first time the Capital Defender’s office employed someone who once resided on death row.
"What you have is a murderer talking to murderers, and maybe that creates a concern for some people," Malone said.
Not all prosecutors feel the same.
Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn said she doesn’t see anything troubling about a convicted killer who was granted clemency by the board of pardons and paroles working for the capital defender’s office. She said she would have a problem, however, if the defense requested unrestricted access for a client in jail without the prosecution having a chance to be heard.
"I would be concerned about that, regardless of who it is," Penn said.