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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Alabama mail-bomber, 83, becomes oldest to be executed in US modern times

Walter Leroy Moody Jr was found guilty in 1996 of murder and attempted murder

Death row inmate and convicted pipe bomb killer Walter Moody, was executed at the William C Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, US. Alabama Department of Corrections/ Handout via Reuters
Death row inmate and convicted pipe bomb killer Walter Moody, was executed at the William C Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, US. Alabama Department of Corrections/ Handout via Reuters

An Alabama inmate convicted of the mail-bomb slayings of a federal judge and a civil rights lawyer during a wave of Southern terror in 1989 was executed by lethal injection Thursday, becoming the oldest prisoner put to death in the US in modern times.

Walter Leroy Moody Jr, 83, was pronounced dead at 8.42pm following an injection at the Alabama prison at Atmore. He had no last statement and did not respond when an official asked if he had any last words shortly before the chemicals began flowing.

Authorities said Mr Moody sent out four mail bombs in December of 1989, killing Judge Robert S Vance, a member of the Atlanta-based 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in Alabama and Robert E Robinson, a black civil rights attorney from Savannah, Georgia. Two other bombs, including one mailed to the NAACP office in Jacksonville, Florida, were intercepted and did not explode.

At his 1996 trial, prosecutors described Mr Moody as a meticulous coward who killed Judge Vance with murder by mail because of his obsession with getting revenge on the legal system, and then committed additional package bombings to make it look like the Ku Klux Klan was behind the judge's murder.

Mr Moody became the oldest US inmate put to death since executions resumed in the US in the 1970's, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center. His attorneys argued in court filings and a clemency petition to Alabama Gov Kay Ivey that his age and vein condition would make lethal injection more difficult.

The US Supreme Court temporarily stayed execution plans on Thursday evening to consider Moody's late appeals, but later lifted the stay without comment, allowing the execution to go forward.

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Vance was at his kitchen table in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on December 16, 1989, when he opened a package after a morning of errands and yard work.

The explosion ripped through the home near Birmingham, killing Judge Vance instantly and severely injuring his wife, Helen. Prosecutors said Mr 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 practising law.

Mr 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 Judge Vance's murder.

Judge 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 earlier as the execution loomed. As chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party in the 1960's and 1970's, Judge Vance worked to bring African Americans into the party and often "butted heads" with segregationist Gov George Wallace, his son said.

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

Mr Moody had always maintained his innocence.

In recent weeks, Moody had sent a letter 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. The younger Vance said he put the letter in the trash.

Mr Vance said he had to make peace with his father's death, but has no doubt Mr Moody is guilty. He did not witness the execution.

The lethal injection procedure began at 8.16 pm Mr Moody did not open his eyes or respond as the warden read his death warrant and asked him if he had any last words.

Mr Moody's attorney, Spencer Hahn, said he wanted to know what the prison system "gave him before to knock him out and prevent him from getting to give his last words. There was no dignity in that room. This dishonoured the memory of Judge Vance and Mr Robinson," Mr Hahn said.

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said Mr Moody was not given any sedatives.

Mr Moody's attorneys had asked the nation's highest court to stay his execution in order to review whether his federal sentence, which was handed down first, could be interrupted. They also argued that the aggravating factors used to impose a death sentence were improper.

And in their unsuccessful clemency petition, they argued that his victim was opposed to the death penalty, so halting the execution would honor Judge Vance's beliefs. Judge Vance's son said his father opposed the death penalty personally, but he also believed in following the law.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said on Thursday night that after nearly 30 years, "Tonight, Mr Moody's appeals finally came to a rightful end. Justice has been served."