Doing justice to prison ministry
LINCOLN, Neb. — Bill Hance was a reluctant convert to prison…
LINCOLN, Neb. — Shackled at the waist, wrists and ankles, Carey Dean Moore walked down the hallway of the Nebraska State Penitentiary to the room where his earthly life would end.
He had requested that no guard hold his arm or lead him. He wanted to walk on his own.
On the execution table, covered with a white sheet, Moore’s left arm was connected to intravenous tubing. He turned his head toward members of his family, present among the witnesses, and mouthed, “I love you.”
The first injection of a four-drug cocktail was administered at 10:24 a.m. Moore took short breaths and gasped for air. His chest heaved several times. Then it stopped.
The warden lowered a curtain over the media’s viewing window as corrections officials confirmed that the drugs had taken effect. Fourteen minutes later, the curtain was raised. Moore, 60, was pronounced dead at 10:47 a.m.
A few days later, Bill Hance, prison minister for the Lincoln Church of Christ, got a letter dated Aug. 13, the day before the execution. It was from Moore, who marked the time as, “3 a.m.?”
“Some of the strongest Christians I’ve met were murderers.”
“Are you surprise(d) to hear from me?” wrote Moore, who spent 38 years on death row for the 1979 murders of two cab drivers. “Have I been executed? Oh, I pray I have, brother in Christ!
“I love that verse, ‘to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.’ YES!”
The letter was a thank-you note for the church’s involvement in a Christmas benevolence program at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, where death row inmates wait to be executed. Moore had served as a liaison for the program.
“I think that it has been awesome in Christ that everyone has done this for the guys for so long,” Moore wrote. “Truly, Bill, thank you. Will you please let the people there know that I am so appreciative of them?”
Moore also requested a pocket-size Bible (Old and New Testament, New International Version) for another death row inmate, Raymond Mata. “If possible, would you mind ordering him one or sending one to him?”
Born again behind bars, Moore was a de facto ministry leader for the death row inmates in Tecumseh, Hance told The Christian Chronicle.
It’s a role Moore inherited from Robert E. Williams, another convert who spent two decades on death row for multiple rapes and murders he committed in 1977.
Williams died by electric chair in 1997. It was the last execution in Nebraska until Moore’s in 2018.
Hance, 80, has served in prison ministry in Nebraska for three decades. He knew both Williams and Moore.
“I did not baptize Cary Dean Moore,” Hance said, “but I did baptize four of the men on death row that were taught by Cary Dean.”
Related: Doing justice to prison ministry
The Lincoln Church of Christ, a humble, 75-year-old congregation of about 120 souls, sponsors a far-reaching prison ministry. Church members have sent Bible lessons to inmates across Nebraska — and to Mississippi and the Carolinas. A few prisoners who are allowed to leave their facilities on four-hour passes worship with the church.
Some members make regular visits to correctional facilities to lead worship, study the Bible and baptize inmates. One of the volunteers, Joe Stallard, said he sometimes looks up the criminal records of his students after he studies the Bible with them.
“Some of the strongest Christians I’ve met were murderers,” he said. “That’s the sad thing I keep thinking about Cary Dean Moore. He was the leader of the church on death row. He converted a lot of people.”
After Moore’s execution, a dozen inmates remain on death row — a sequestered, high-security wing of the Tecumseh prison with about a dozen inmates. They’re not allowed to mix with the general prison population or attend worship services.
They are allowed limited interaction with each other — and with prison chaplains — in a common area, Hance said.
Hance met Robert E. Williams, who he came to know as Bob, a few years before Williams’ 1997 execution. Williams had been baptized years earlier and had started studying Bible correspondence lessons with two women from the North Omaha Church of Christ. They had suggested that Williams be re-baptized, and he wanted Hance’s opinion.
Hance asked Williams why he had been baptized. Williams told him that his time in God’s Word had convinced him that he needed to follow Jesus’ example and be baptized by immersion for the remission of his sins. Hance said he was convinced that Williams’ baptism fit the pattern found in Scripture.
Hance later met Carey Dean Moore, who was baptized in 2005 after studying the Bible with Geoffrey Gonifas, a minister in Wyoming. Moore “did lots of talking and encouraging of people that couldn’t study with me,” Hance recalled. Moore studied with his fellow inmates and recommended that they study with Hance, eventually resulting in the baptisms of four death row inmates.
One of them, Jose M. Sandoval, was the ringleader of a 2002 bank robbery attempt that left four people dead. Sandoval was baptized in 2007.
“Everything happens for a reason, and there is a purpose for everything,” Sandoval told the Chronicle. He wasn’t allowed to attend Moore’s funeral, so he prepared remarks to be read at the service that reflect his belief.
“I’ve been on death row since 2005,” he wrote, “and, to be honest, I wouldn’t (have) been saved unless I was on the row … If they would of given me life, I would of been still thinking that life is still good, and I wouldn’t of been in my dark hole.
“It sometimes takes us to be in a deep, dark pit in order to be saved by Jesus. … I believe that Carey was in a dark hole, and he too was rescued.”
Another of the four inmates, Marco Torres, also wrote a statement for Moore’s eulogy. Hance baptized Torres in 2010.
“He was there through thick and thin,” Torres wrote, “always putting the other person first, even when he was tired. … He showed me how not to judge, when at times judging was easy.”
Too often in prison ministry, Hance said, “a person becomes a Christian and finds a verse to use against a cell mate. An argument is when a discussion becomes ‘I wanna win and make you a loser.’ So we don’t argue.”
“It sometimes takes us to be in a deep, dark pit in order to be saved by Jesus.”
That mentality makes a difference in the lives of prisoners, said Hance’s wife, Colene. She conducts Bible studies and meets with inmates when her health allows.
Occasionally, on Thursday nights — set aside by the prison system for baptisms — she has witnessed convicts give their lives to Christ.
“I always say ‘hallelujah’ because their faces are different. Don’t you think, Bill?” she asked her husband, who agreed.
“You know, as Christians sometimes we think Jesus’ blood just covers us ‘good’ Christians’ sins,” she said. “But that’s not what Jesus did.”
Carey Dean Moore’s solemn walk to the execution chamber followed years of controversy.
In 2015, Nebraska’s state legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, overriding the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts. Nebraskans in favor of capital punishment launched a petition drive, subsidized by $300,000 of Ricketts’ own money, and got enough signatures for a public vote.
In November 2016, voters rejected the repeal, keeping execution legal.
Moore’s death was the state’s first-ever lethal injection, and a German pharmaceutical company that manufactures one of the drugs used in the execution tried to halt it, to no avail.
“I personally am a strong proponent of the death penalty,” Bill Hance said. “The primary charge of government from God is to punish evildoers. God’s punishment is capital punishment.” He cited Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”
But he also quoted Ecclesiastes 8:11: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.”
“I believe that, as it has been carried out in Nebraska, it’s cruel and unusual punishment,” Bill Hance said of the death penalty, noting that the last two men executed had waits of 20 and 38 years. The Nebraska Supreme Court set Moore’s execution date seven times before it finally was carried out.
While the ordeals were torturous, “I was very, very thankful that he had the years to serve before they executed him,” Bill Hance said of Moore. “Cary Dean’s death to me was not the loss of a brother, but the absence of the ability to communicate with a brother.”
In the days leading up to Moore’s execution, news reports focused on the controversies, the crimes and the long wait for justice endured by the victims’ families.
“I don’t know who the papers are talking about or that murderer they claimed him to be,” Torres wrote in his eulogy for Moore. “The man I knew was a savior to my life and my soul. … I just hope I can honor him with the life I have left.”
Seven years before his death, Moore talked to the Lincoln Journal Star about the lives he took at age 22 — Reuel Van Ness Jr. and Maynard Helgeland, both cab drivers, both 47, both Korean War vets. Van Ness was the father of 10 children.
“When I killed the two men, that was my responsibility, my fault,” he said. “The devil didn’t make me do it. That was just me.”
In a testimony read at his funeral, Moore described the pain he felt daily for his actions.
“I have hurt so many people, especially when I murdered two men,” Moore wrote. “How could I have done that to so many? And the pain continues … and so does healing and the tender mercies of God!”
“…deep down, we are all monsters with demons inside, and the only thing that keeps those demons in check is Jesus!”
Sandoval, in his eulogy comments, described his fellow death row convict — and brother in Christ — as “a better man than me.”
“He wasn’t the perfect Christian, but then again, who is?” Sandoval wrote of Moore. “Even with all his flaws he was a beautiful monster. I know for a fact that he’s in a better place, where all monsters go, because, deep down, we are all monsters with demons inside, and the only thing that keeps those demons in check is Jesus!
“We can only hope to be better than the day before, and with each day that passes by we hope and pray that Jesus will change our hearts and minds and create within us a new creation.
“I believe that Carey Dean Moore was at his best when he left this world.”
In his farewell letter to Hance and the Lincoln Church of Christ, Moore offered some final words of encouragement.
“You have done an excellent job, serving Christ faithfully even when the day seemed questionable,” Moore wrote. “He knows all about it and is in control. All we can do is plant His seeds, and He will water and take care of the rest. Yes?
“I think so, amen.”
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