taking the words of Jesus seriously

In the fall of 2010, I was working for the Montana Abolition Coalition to pass a bill that would end the state’s death penalty. As a part of my work, I had the opportunity to attend the Kairos Conference in Atlanta, sponsored by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

Just before lunch, a friend introduced me to Billy Moore, a man who’d spent time on death row in Georgia. I assumed he was a death row exoneree like many others I have met in this work. I shook his hand, told him it was wonderful to meet him, and he offered to come to Montana if there was ever anything he could do to help our efforts.

Then Billy took the stage and began to tell his story – one that was much different than I had expected. He talked about the night more than 30 years ago when he was involved in an armed robbery that did not go as expected. After feeling the homeowner’s rifle hit his leg, Billy pulled out his pistol and fired. His shot in the dark hit the homeowner (Fredger Stapleton) and killed him. Billy was not a death row exoneree. He’d been on death row in Georgia for a crime he committed. Billy was guilty.

Much of the next several minutes were a blur for me. Billy continued to tell his story, but I was reeling to make sense of his story. He talked about the remorse he’d felt immediately after the murder—how he’d insisted on pleading guilty to the charges. He talked about being sentenced to death and the hopelessness he’d felt. But then Billy started talking about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jail house conversion, yes. But this story rang true.

Time passed, and Billy felt the Lord was calling him to reach out to the family members of Mr. Stapleton – the man whose life he had taken. He wrote them a letter expressing how sorry he was and asking for their forgiveness. Much to his surprise, they wrote back to say they were Christian people and had already forgiven him.

This was the beginning of what continues to be an astonishing friendship between Billy and the Stapleton family. The family members tirelessly advocated for Billy’s sentence to be commuted. They saw that he was a changed man, and they wanted him to be free.

When the day of his execution came, Billy was reading his Bible and trying to remain calm. He came to the passage in Psalm 118:17 – “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” Billy started declaring out loud that this was a promise from God for him to stand on. His guards felt sorry for him. They’d witnessed the false hope of the condemned before. But through a miraculous turn of events (including a phone call between Mother Teresa and the Parole Board), Billy was granted a stay.

The Stapleton family and others continued to advocate on Billy’s behalf, and on November 8th, 1991, he became a free man. Now an Evangelical Pastor in Georgia, Billy travels the world telling his story and sharing with others the power of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Mr. Stapleton’s grandson now works at a Juvenile Detention Center in Georgia. He recently invited Billy to speak to the youth at the center about why it’s important to make good choices in life. A victim’s family member asking his grandfather’s killer to help end the cycle of violence in the next generation. Jesus died once and for all to make this sort of healing possible.

Ezekiel 33:11 says, “As surely as I live declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they would turn from their ways and live.” Because I’ve seen that this is possible, I work to end the death penalty in Jesus name. I want people to know that redemption is real and it is what God desires.

Billy and his story inspire me in my work with Equal Justice USA – a national, grassroots organization working to build a criminal justice system that is fair, effective, and responsive to everyone impacted by crime. Much of our work focuses on bringing an end to the death penalty, and I have been overwhelmed by the positive response we’ve received from Evangelical leaders nationwide. People are willing to have a conversation about the issue, and we’ve been discovering common ground. All over the country, Evangelicals are changing their minds on this issue, and stories like Billy’s are helping to make that happen.

I am hopeful that if we as Christians continue to speak about God’s ability to transform lives, others will realize that there is no place for the death penalty.

Because no one is beyond redemption.

That’s what Billy Moore has taught me.

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