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Death row

By John W. Kennedy

Carey Dean Moore is the senior member of a select group of seven men in Nebraska. He wishes he didn’t belong.

Moore’s tenure on the state’s death row since June 1980 is involuntary. Nearly two dozen others have come and gone. A few died awaiting their final fate. Some had sentences commuted to life in prison. Others have been released because new evidence raised doubts about their guilt. Three have been executed.

In the lengthy appeals process afforded to death row inmates in this country, Moore has only one legal hope left — that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up his case — before the ultimate sanction is performed. If his last option fails, Moore’s life will end as a lethal combination of drugs courses through an IV.

The judicial process has provided a roller coaster ride for Moore. Last year, a three-judge federal appeals court panel voted 2-1 to vacate the death sentence. But two months ago, the full court reversed the decision by a 7-6 vote.

Moore, now 45, admits killing two taxi drivers during drug-induced robberies in August 1979. “I didn’t care about hurting people then,” Moore recalls. “I didn’t care what happened to me.”

That same month, overcome with the mess his 22-year life had become, Moore accepted Jesus as his Savior in a county jail in Omaha. A three-judge panel convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder in 1980.

Chaplain Marv Watson

Because of his admiration for Assemblies of God Chaplain Marv Watson, Moore last month granted PE Report his first interview since being incarcerated 23 years ago. As he eyes Watson’s arrival for a visit at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, he beams broadly and waves. Moore doesn’t fit a killer’s stereotype. He has a slight build. He is quiet. He chooses his words carefully. He hugs and jokes with Watson.

Moore says he couldn’t have survived this long without Watson, who for 13 years has visited him weekly for an hour-long personal Bible study. “Many weeks Marvin has been the only one to come in to see me,” Moore says. “I don’t know where I’d be in my Christian walk if it wasn’t for Christian volunteers.”

The extraordinary length of Moore’s time on death row — the national average is 10 years — has been both a blessing and a curse. The longer Moore lives, the stronger Christian he becomes and the more he can evangelize the few he comes in contact with in prison: guards, attorneys, his 11 siblings and other death row prisoners. Yet awaiting state-imposed death is nerve-racking. Only 1 in 100 convicted murderers receives a death sentence.

Moore isn’t allowed to attend church services or Bible studies with other inmates. For 21 hours a day he sits alone in his cell, where he spends a great deal of time reading the Bible and Christian literature that Watson has given to him, including Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

Despite being in a visiting area under the watchful eye of three guards and four surveillance cameras, Moore converses with Watson on a level of trust that he’s never experienced with anyone else.

Until last year, Watson only had to drive a few blocks from his home in Lincoln to visit Moore at the state penitentiary. But last year death row moved to this new facility on the north edge of Tecumseh, 50 miles southeast of the state capital.

Whether his appeal is successful or whether he is executed, Moore says he is grateful for a secure eternity in heaven.

“For several years I could not forgive myself for killing two men,” says Moore, who has spent more than half his life on death row. “I caused pain to their families and my own family. Marvin encouraged me to forgive myself and have faith that God has forgiven me. God is more than able and willing to forgive our sins.”

Ministry in Lincoln
Watson has a pleasant personality, uncomplaining attitude and ever-present smile. He spends most of his ministry time at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where he conducts Bible studies, counsels inmates, conducts worship services and visits hospitalized inmates.

He first ministered in prison in 1989, an ironic step of faith since he was serving as a judge at the time (see sidebar on next page). “God opened my eyes that inmates are no different than anyone on the outside,” Watson says. “They are human beings who need Christ.”

After four years of volunteering, Watson left his secure job of 19 years as an associate county judge. His wife, Jane, quit her job as a bank teller. They formed the non-profit Impact Ministries and now rely on donations from churches and individuals as full-time volunteer chaplains in Nebraska prisons.

Nebraska State Penitentiary Warden Michael L. Kenney, 50, is a Watson supporter.

“Marv has a great compassion for the inmates,” says Kenney, who, like Watson, attends Christ’s Place in Lincoln where David Argue is pastor. “His motive is to share the love of Christ and assist prisoners in becoming whole in an honest way. Marv’s ministry is critical if men’s lives are going to be changed to the point where they won’t return.”

At 61, Watson is a father figure for many inmates. If Watson didn’t disciple many of these men, no one would.

On this particular Bible study day, black, Hispanic and white inmates watch with rapt attention a Christian video about life’s hurts. Watson finds videos are a teaching method that all can follow, regardless of reading ability. Once a week he also sponsors a Spanish-language video series.

The study is held in the chapel, a 72-year-old brick building in the middle of the compound. This is the same building where four inmates gagged, hog-tied and held Watson hostage for more than two hours in 2001 as part of an escape attempt. Despite the trauma, Watson returned the next week, as usual.

A free-flowing and theologically deep discussion about anger and guilt ensues following the video. Inmates pray about letting go of bitterness. Watson stresses the importance of allowing the Holy Spirit to have control.

“Marv pours out his heart here faithfully,” inmate William H. Brown says in an interview afterwards. “He has a great ear and a great shoulder — he takes our burdens as his own.” Brown, 45, is familiar with recidivism studies that show a released inmate is less likely to return if he has a genuine Christian faith. He says his conversion to Christianity after being imprisoned three years ago for burglary saved his troubled marriage.

“Brother Marvin is my only mentor here as an elder,” says Lynn Finney, 49. Finney used to be a fitness trainer to athletes, movie stars and singers — before being convicted of forgery to buy cocaine. Finney likes the concrete information presented at the meetings and he takes copious notes during class in an effort to change his behavior.

Lionardo Ramirez, 43, says the gatherings provide inner peace that is a relief from the boisterous barracks where he lives with 85 other prisoners. He accepted Christ as Savior in 1998, just after being arrested for “one night of stupidity” in which he beat up relatives of his ex-girlfriend.

Ramirez, who is dyslexic, never learned to read while spending his childhood shuttling between various orphanages. Brown taught Ramirez to read the Bible last year through practical application. Ramirez taught himself to play the piano and guitar. Brown pointed out that Ramirez’s musical ability didn’t happen without practice. Brown told Ramirez the same holds true for the Christian walk: a follower must read the Bible and pray daily to be effective.

Women prisoners

Jane Watson prays with inmate Barb Roth.

Watson’s wife of nearly 43 years, Jane, does similar volunteer work at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, 50 miles west of Lincoln. Part of that involves meeting biweekly with 30 women for individual 30-minute prayer and counseling sessions.

“Deep down, a lot of them are just looking for someone to love them,” Jane Watson says.

Barb Roth, 39, has been at the York prison for a year after a possession of methamphetamine conviction. Her husband is in the Lincoln penitentiary until July 2004. Because Roth is in the substance abuse unit, she isn’t allowed to attend Bible studies with other inmates, so Watson conducts a personalized Bible study with her.

“Jane has been there for me,” Roth says. “She’s prayed with me, cried with me and been unbiased in loving me. She listens to me and gives me words of encouragement.”

Watson says isolation allows inmates to reflect on what they have done and she has seen tremendous spiritual growth in Roth.

“Being in prison has made me realize I caused a lot of pain for others,” Roth says. “I have a hard time forgiving myself. I have to remember that God forgives me. If I don’t, I play God, which is what got me here.”

Although Roth has a bachelor’s degree in quality management, the felony drug sentence prevents her from securing another job as a plant inspector. Yet she realizes that finding a church is just as important as finding work when she is paroled this month.

“If they don’t have spiritual support when they get out, they won’t make it,” says Jane Watson. Every week the Watsons transport newly released inmates to church.

In the meantime, women in the York penitentiary have hundreds of Christian books available in the chapel library that have been donated by churches and individuals. There are many competing spiritual voices at the facility. Of the 260 inmates, 25 list their religion as Wicca.

Marv Watson knows the importance of Christian literature for inmates, and he regularly takes periodicals such as Today’s Pentecostal Evangel to those not allowed or able to meet with other Christians because they are in segregation, protective custody or hospitalized. “Inmates will usually pick up literature that is available to them because most don’t have funds to purchase books or magazines,” he says. “Christian literature can produce a positive attitude of hope to balance the negative environment many live in.”


John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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