This piece originally appeared in the San Antonio Current on January 23, 2007. Republished with permission.
Tread carefully up frozen stairs onto a frozen porch, where an overweight cat is mewing to be let in. Enter the front door of the house off Drew Street in downtown Livingston into a smoke-filled radio studio. Survey the walls decorated in a mosaic of photographs and greeting cards from death-row inmates — smiling faces and warm wishes from clean-shaven men in white jumpers. Notice first the portrait of Johnathan Moore and a short-haired girl, posed gleefully on opposite sides of a glass partition. Note the photograph a few feet above it: Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker.”
On Sundays, from 1–6 p.m., All Life is Precious Ministries broadcasts a “Shout-Out” radio show on KDOL 96.1 FM, preaching the gospel to the 2,900 inmates at the nearby Polunsky prison unit and providing a venue for supporters to communicate with the incarcerated. The night before an execution they broadcast a special show dedicated to the condemned inmate.
Moore’s death sentence was handed down 12 years earlier when Moore, then a 19-year-old goth kid, was convicted of killing off-duty SAPD officer Fabian Dominguez during a home burglary. Putting together a radio-friendly playlist of Moore’s favorite artists wasn’t easy since Ministry and Nine Inch Nails aren’t really Christian-radio friendly. As a compromise, Mazzy Star, The Cure, and themes from Twin Peaks played as the phone bleeped with calls from as far as England to wish Moore goodbye.
Moore couldn’t hear it.
Citing the ice storm that transformed half of the state into tundra, earlier that evening the Texas Department of Criminal Justice moved Moore to Huntsville’s Walls Unit, home of the lethal-injection room. It’s 43 miles away, well outside the station’s broadcasting range.
“They know we do this show and how much it means to the inmates,” host Joy Weathers said. “Since we’ve been doing the shows, almost two years now, we’ve never heard of [TDCJ moving an inmate early].”
Typically, a death-row inmate is transferred at about noon on the day of the execution. The night before, they open cell-to-cell intercoms, allowing inmates to throw what passes for a party on the row. In an interview in December, Moore described the last night he spent with his best friend and next-cell neighbor on the row, Michael DeWayne Johnson, whose execution was set for October 19, 2006.
“We hooked our radios up and talked to each other. We drank homemade wine and partied out all night,” Moore said. “And at 2:19 a.m., he checked out.”
Johnson left a suicide note on his cell wall, written in blood, proclaiming his innocence in the 1996 killing of a convenience-store manager.
“They dragged his body out and his white jumper was soaked in blood. The right side of his neck, he’d cut it wide open like a fish gill,” Moore said. “He was just trying to control his own destiny. He didn’t want to be defeated by them.”
According to sources close to Moore, Moore himself was caught with a razor blade in his shoe before his execution.
The Huntsville move was only one of the storm-related difficulties leading up to Moore’s execution. His father, Walter Moore, was iced in at his Pike Hill home near Bandera for most of the preceding day.
“One of my friends, he had a four-wheel-drive truck, and we went up the back way, and we made it halfway up the hill before we started sliding down,” said Devon Wilbur, a childhood friend of Moore’s. “We had to stop there and call Walter, and he had to walk probably a mile down the hill on the ice to get to the car.”
Moore’s family and friends were scheduled for a nine-hour visitation with Moore on the eve of his execution. They couldn’t leave San Antonio until 5 p.m. It was cancelled.
The ice storm forced most of Austin to close on Tuesday and Wednesday, including TDCJ and the Texas attorney-general’s office. Combined with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, this meant three full days of hampered appeals for Moore. Still, the process slogged onward. TDCJ and attorney-general press officers worked off cell phones from home, while state attorneys answered motions filed on Moore’s behalf with the Supreme Court. Moore’s last appeal was rejected just before 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
“We were so hopeful. I don’t know if we were in denial or what,” said Naomi “Lily” Madsen, a witness at Moore’s execution. She met Moore while fulfilling court-ordered community service with the Books Through Bars project in New York. “Devon and I didn’t sleep that whole night before. We just stayed up talking, having deep conversations about life and death, and what happens after death, worrying about Johnathan, wondering if he was sleeping or not.”
Five days before the execution, Madsen and Moore filed marriage paperwork.
“We ran out of time and I think the paperwork got slowed down,” Moore wrote in his last letter to the Current. “It doesn’t matter either way. I belong to that girl. I just wish that I could’ve helped her.”
Moore’s last meal consisted of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and beef-flavored Rice-a-Roni, a tribute to the first meal cooked for him by Meredith Nichols, his girlfriend when the murder occured. Nichols was also the one individual on his execution list who didn’t attend.
“Meredith is largely symbolic,” he wrote. “I don’t feel she’ll show up, but it’ll end up in the news (hopefully) and she’ll see that I was still thinking of her … A lot of people wanted that space, but I wanted Meredith there, if only in spirit.”
Shortly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, chin trembling, Moore apologized to Dominguez’s widow and then told Madsen, “Quit the heroin. Quit the methadone. That’s what you do.” He was pronounced dead eight minutes later.
Moore’s brother, Walter Moore Jr., had one last statement for the public: “Anybody who’s reading this and planning on stealing something tonight, don’t take a fucking gun. If my brother hadn’t got caught with a gun, he might’ve gotten a suspended sentence, worst he would’ve been out of jail 10 years ago.”
Moore’s father said, per Moore’s wishes, they would cremate the body but there would be no memorial ceremony. Nevertheless, Moore’s friends will meet this week for beers and reminisce.
“A lot of people, not only have they not talked to Johnathan in over 10 years, but they haven’t talked to each other,” Wilbur said. “I think it’s really cool that because of him we’re getting together. Right up there at the end, everyone started coming out of the woodwork.”
• • • • • • • •
I can’t let this story go without saying a few words of my own. As Moore apologized, strapped to the gurney in the tight, pale-green room, I thought to myself, “OK, that’s all that needed to be said. We can stop this thing.” By then it was too late. The first stage of the lethal injection, sodium thiopental, began flowing and Moore lapsed into an unnatural snore while attempting to pass a message to Nichols.
Minutes later, we were back on the street again. More than 30 individuals stood behind a police ribbon, each raising two blue neon glow-sticks, the kind kids wear at elementary-school skate nights. Express-News reporter Maro Robbins told the crowd it was over, and there was silence.
As I left, a woman called out, “This was justice, you guys.” No seconding cheers. I’ve never heard anything more unconvincing in my life.
Correction: A year and a half after this story ran, word went around that “Lily” was found dead in an apartment in New York City. That news stuck with me a long time and a reminder of how dark life can be. On February 19, 2013 a friend of Lily’s got in touch and informed me that Lily survived the near-death experience and is alive and well.