News from LifeLines

The 2017 Autumn Conference

The LifeLines autumn conference in London was, as ever a welcome opportunity to meet up with friends old and new.  This year, those friends included our speaker, Billy Neal Moore, who last spoke to us in Liverpool in 2008.  Billy spent over 16 years on Death Row in Georgia and his story of faith, courage and forgiveness remains just as moving today as it was nine years ago.

Billy began by thanking all the LifeLines members for what we do and the fact that we put aside our lives - our partners, children, jobs - and take the time to write to someone on Death Row.  He told us that we should never think 'it's just a letter', because we are pumping life into a world that has none and helping people who may have nobody else to turn to.  Billy himself had many correspondents during his years in prison and knows first hand how much receiving a letter can mean.

Unlike many of our previous conference speakers, who may have been exonerated from Death

Friday the 13th came and went, but nobody came for Billy and he wasn't about to remind them!  Eventually, on the following Monday, he received a letter from his lawyer saying he'd forgotten to mention that an appeal had been automatically lodged so they wouldn't be executing him on Friday after all.  He then asked for more money.  Billy wrote to his sister and told her to fire him - he would represent himself.  She thought he was mad, but gave in when he pointed out that he could hardly make his situation any worse.

Billy had never been religious and had no interest in letting God into his life, but one day a Pastor and his wife came to visit him in prison.  Despite his initial reluctance, after praying with them he felt differently.  He then wrote to the victim's family and told them he was truly sorry for what he had done and that if they could find it in their hearts to forgive him he would truly appreciate it - but if not, he would understand as he couldn't forgive himself either.

The family wrote back saying that they forgave him.  Billy was amazed and asked if they were sure - to which they responeded by explaining that they had chosen to forgive him rather than live every day with anger and bitterness.  They weren't letting him off the hook, but instead making a decision for themselves to not be imprisoned by hatred; he was just a by-product of that.  So he began a correspondence that would last throughout Billy's time in prison and which would ultimately save his life.

Despite this, for a long time Billy still couldn't forgive himself for what he'd done.  In the end it was his victim's family that helped him come to terms with it - they told him they believed God had forgiven him, so how could he take on the forgiveness that they had given him and not allow it to help him?  He would never be able to help anyone else if he was still carrying that baggage himself.  He had to believe he was forgiven and fight those feelings that were condemning him and making him feel bad because those emotions were paralysing him and making him ineffective.

Years later, he would share this message with a mother whose teenage son had been murdered.  She was unable to forgive or move on, but Billy told her what his victim's family had told him - that forgiveness isn't a feeling but a choice you make to be free from anger.  It isn't something you do for the person who's hurt you, it's for your own peace.  Every day that she woke up was a chance for a fresh start, yet she was choosing to live in a prison of her own making while her son's killer had already been released.

Back in prison, Billy read up on the law and his case.  He filed every petition he could think of but he kept getting turned down because he had pleaded guilty.  Later, a law professor from Northeastern University offered to represent him.  Billy agreed on the condition that the professor send all the paperwork to him first, double spaced, so he could change the wording when necessary.  After all, it was his life on the line.  Amazingly the professor agreed and Billy saw everything that went to or from the court relating to his case.

On 21st May 1984, Billy was taken to the death watch cell, where he would spend the last 72 hours before his planned execution on 24th.  Instead of taking him straight there, on the way to the cell the guards stopped at the execution chamber and showed him the electric chair.  While they pointed out the chair he would die in and the straps that would hold him down, Billy was torturing himself with all the things he'd read about executions going wrong and wondering if that was going to happen to him.

At the death watch cell he was watched 24 hours a day by two guards - one writing down everything he did, another everything he said.  They took his clothes and gave him the jumpsuit they would execute him in and new boots with no shoelaces.  While he was there, he received a letter form his ex-wife, a heroin addict, whose abandonment of Billy and their son had contributed to him committing the murder.  It was the first time he'd heard from her in 11 years and she chose that moment to 'clear her conscience' and tell him that he wasn't their son's biological father - it was one of Billy's closest friends from school.  At that moment he was so angry and hurt that he imagined in great detail choking her to death, but then he remembered the lesson of forgiveness that he'd learnt and knew he had to let it go.  He wrote her a long letter telling her about how he'd imagined killing her, but then concluded by saying that he forgave her.  Later, while praying and reading his Bible, Billy heard the voice of God telling him that he wasn't going to be executed.  Nobody else believed him, but he knew he was going to live.

Sure enough, seven hours before the execution, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Apeal gave him a stay.  Nobody seemed to know why and in fact they spent several years arguing about it before eventually Billy was given another execution date in August 1990.  This time the victim's family travelled over 100 miles to plead for him; they had been corresponding for a long time by then and thought of him as a brother.  At the same time, a young man Billy had been writing to for years had been working for Mother Teresa.  She intervened on Billy's behalf and told the court that they should do what Jesus would do.  In an unprecedented turn of events his death sentence was commuted to life - except that because of a miscommunication within his team, nobody told Billy.  When he was taken back to his cell on Death Row, he thought he had a 30 day stay.  He couldn't understand why the other prisoners were all so excited.

Thirteen months later, thanks to another intervention by the victim's family, Billy was released from jail on parole.  This was an unheard of situation; a self-confessed murderer not only getting off Death Row but out of prison altogether.  Nevertheless, he was kept on parole for 15 years, despeite doing everything  he was supposed to and never stepping out of line.  Eventually, the Chairman of the Parole Board (who had told Billy that if it had been up to him, he'd have executed him when he had the chance) was arrested for taking kickbacks and his replacement immediately released Billy from parole in 2006.  This meant that he was now free to travel wherever he liked, sharing his story and powerful message of forgiveness in schools, prisons and churches and with groups like LifeLines.  It was truly a privilege to hear him speak.

Later in the day, LifeLines Founder Jan Arriens paid a moving tribute to his friend, Mike Lambrix, who was executed in Florida on 5th October.  They began writing

in 1991 when Jan asked Mike's permission to reproduce one of his essays for Welcome to Hell and had been corresponding ever since, despite Mike saying initially that he didn't want a penfriend.

Jan described Mike as a brilliant correspondent and a prolific writer of outstanding essays.  He was extremely perceptive and intelligent and wrote very well on the basis of extremely little education, having left school at about 15 and drifted on the margins of society before committing his first offence at the age of 22 - the same age as Billy was when he was convicted.  Mike always maintained that he was innocent of Capital Murder, but accepted a charge of manslaughter in self-defence.  He refused plea bargains on two occasions on the grounds that he wasn't going to plead guilty to something he hadn't done.  There was a lot of steel and principle to Mike - once, beneath his door, he had witnessed some guards attacking a prisoner who subsequently died and wrote to the Miami Herald about what he had seen.  Jan believes that Mike's intelligence and courage made him a thorn in the State's side.

Like Billy, Mike turned correspondence into a full-time job, writing six page letters in his very precise handwriting.  His offence went back to 1983 and both juries in his case were split, so he had great hopes that the decision by the Supreme Court - that sentencing in Florida had to be unanimous - would be restrospectively applied to him.

Mike was nearly executed in 1988 and again in 2016, when Jan went out ot visit him with his family.  Mike refused to allow people to get down in the mouth.  He teased his sisters about their teenage crushes on pop idols and had them all in fits of laughter.  Jan knows that he did the same thing this year when it ws for real and his family were with him.

Jan recalled one stroy from 2001, when he went to visit Mike with Mike's stepfather, mother and daughter Jennifer, who was then 18.  It was only the second time that Mike had seen his daughter, as she had been born around the time he was incarcerated.  She'd been deprived of oxygen at birth and wasn't able to sustain a normal conversation.  Jan worried how Mike would cope with it - but again he held court, had Jennifer laughing and put everyone at ease.  Jan found it astonishing that someone who had been held in virtual solitary confinement could show such social aplomb.  Then Mike said he was going to introduce his beautiful daughter to all the men and promenaded her up and down the tables, stopping at each one while the guards found themselves conveniently 'busy with paperwork'.  Jan watched, lost in amazement that his friend had such self-assurance and poise.

Mike again put Jan at his ease during two phone calls in the final week of his life.  Jan wondered what he would say and how he was going to cope, but needn't have worried.  On the first call, Mike was very bright and optimistic about his appeals and told Jan that the Warden had come down with his death suit.  It had been made for him in 2016, but the only problem was that Mike had been on hunger strike in September, so when he put the trousers on they promptly fell to the ground!

In 1988, like Billy, Mike came within hours of execution.  He woke up in a half slumber and found his cell was flooded with light.  He said was a light and it wasn't a light; you could see it and you couldn't see it; it was inside and it was outside him.  This experience changed his life and sustained him until the day he died.  He would often write about what he called 'the day God died', by which he meant it was the day he took leave of an infantile attachement to a personal God to get in touch with something much deeper, much subtler, more mysterious - but utterly real.

When Jan turned 70, Mike sent him a simple plastic mirror and Jan read out these words from an essay Mike had written several years ago:

"A simple plastic mirror hangs upon the doorframe of my death row cell, faded with the age of years gone by.  I could easily replace it with a new one but I don't want to.  That inanimate object has become my friend, I can look within this reflection and see a person I'm still coming to know.  When I first arrived and was placed within the confines of my solitary crypt, condemned to an existence of a seemingly endless state of judicial limbo, we had no mirrors.  For reasons beyond my personal comprehension, any type of reflective object was deemed to be a threat to the security of this institution.  For years I didn't see myself, with the exception of a few opportunities stolen along the passage of time, but it was just as well as even when confronted with the reflection of my own being, I couldn't recognise the person who looked back.  It was a stranger I did not know and could not undersand and it scared me.  My true friend the mirror is a patient being, willingly it has given me then time to look deep within myself, grasping in almost maniacal desperation for the person I knew existed beyond that shell of emotional void."

Being executed after 33 years, Mike had served longer under sentence of death before execution than all of five or six people in human history.  Mike and Jan's correspondence was one of the longest between someone who was executed and someone who wasn't previously a friend or a family member.

Jan's tribute was followed by a LifeLines first as Lindesay Mace, co-ordinator for Arizon, led us in an emotional performance of the folk song Sam Hall - a song about a chimney sweep who was hanged for thievery in the 1900s.  It was a unique and lovely end to a very special day.

Autumn was here in the blink of an eye and Jan Hall, who is our conference organiser and Vice Chair has little time to rest before our Spring Conference in April 2018.  More details can be found here.

Written by Liz Dyer; Photos by Caz Dyer