20180815_new_hansen_execution_pic2

Billy Dickson reads a letter from executed Nebraska inmate Carey Dean Moore. Dickson exchanged letters with Moore for 20 years.

Billy sits ramrod straight on the couch in his little northwest Omaha apartment. To his left, he has hung an American flag. To his right, a print of “The Last Supper.”

Billy does not look at Old Glory or Jesus. He stares straight ahead, at the Samsung television tuned to live coverage from the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The reporter on TV notes that it is now 10:01 a.m., and the State of Nebraska is most likely beginning the process of executing convicted murderer Carey Dean Moore.

Billy Dickson stares ahead, unblinking. His jaw tightens. He swallows hard.

“I believe in punishment for crime, so part of me is saying this should take place,” he says. “Another part of me is saying I know Carey, I know he has changed, I know him through his letters. And when you know somebody personally ...”

Billy’s voice trails off. He goes over to the dining room table, opens up a manila folder and searches for a few letters he would like to show.

He first wrote to Moore on death row all the way back in 1998. He didn’t do that because he’s a groupie or one of those creeps who think murderers are heroes, Billy says.

Billy, 51, is a deeply devout evangelical Christian. He’s a 1986 Burke High School graduate who has attended missionary school, taught Sunday school and worked at a day care. Billy has two Bibles sitting on his coffee table.

He wrote to Carey Dean Moore and a few other inmates, he says, because Jesus taught us to visit prisoners, to speak to sinners, to care for the condemned.

“In the Gospels, it says that if you visit those in prison, it is like visiting Jesus himself,” he says. “So I wanted to do that.”

Carey Dean Moore wrote back. Soon the convicted murderer and the Sunday school teacher were exchanging a letter or two per month. For years. For two decades.

That’s 400 letters in all, give or take, Billy guesses. Most of them were fairly mundane if you ignore that one of the pen pals was on death row. Billy wrote about how his week was going. So did Carey. Carey told Billy of his health problems, his frustration with other prisoners. Billy told Carey about his diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, about other struggles.

They prayed for one another. Sometimes Carey sent him a poem.

“Want to read one?” Billy asks, and hands over a poem Carey Dean Moore wrote on his typewriter on Oct. 8, 1992.

Though I am a Christian, Hallelujah!

Life is Still So ugly.

Even Though Jesus has forgiven me for murdering

Two men and for hurting their family and mine ...

Who I am I am not so sure, but God does!

Am I only distorting my emotions

And exaggerating my life?

It’s now 10:20. On the TV screen they are debating the debate we have been having forever, the fight about whether it’s right for the state to put a convicted murderer to death.

Pro: It’s the will of the Nebraska voters who voted overwhelmingly to restore the death penalty, justice for the families and a proper punishment for the worst crime, the supporters on TV say.

Con: It’s a barbaric practice, it costs millions more than simply putting prisoners in prison for life and we run the risk of executing innocent Americans, the opponents on TV say.

Personally, Billy believes some of both arguments. He believes that the state and its voters have a right to enforce capital punishment. He also believes that it should be used sparingly, only in cases where there isn’t a shadow of a doubt as to the murderer’s guilt. He also believes that no one should celebrate an execution.

“We just do not value human life in this society, from the very beginning to the very end,” he says. “We don’t value it like we should.”

It’s 10:32. The word still hasn’t come down. The bizarre enormity of this moment is starting to sink in. We have debated for decades, filed and fought dozens of court cases, poured millions of dollars into political campaigns, voted, learned that the state had secretly obtained the execution drugs and waited some more ... all to kill this one man who murdered two cabdrivers in 1979 and now, 39 years later, seems to desperately want to die.

Billy understands the enormity. That’s why he agrees to show me the last letter he wrote Carey Dean Moore, and Moore’s final response.

Billy’s letter is a series of eight polite but direct questions to Carey Dean Moore, questions that poke at the depth of both Moore’s unspeakable sins and his humanity. In his response, Carey answers every one in his neat, square handwriting.

Question: “What led you into a life of crime?”

Answer: “I liked crime and getting into trouble,” Carey Dean Moore writes. “My family was very poor and my dad was terribly abusive and drunk most of the time.”

Q: “Is there anything you would tell young people that might keep them out of prison?”

A: “If I say a million words, they wouldn’t hear. However, I wish executions were videotaped. Even my execution. I would go for that.”

Q: “What do you think the afterlife will be like?”

A: “The Bible promises Heaven to be wonderful. Heavenly.”

Billy Dickson is reading the letter aloud at 10:57 a.m., when the TV reporter comes back onto the screen and reports that Carey Dean Moore is dead.

The Sunday school teacher bows his head. He rubs his face with both hands. He tries not to cry.

“How are you feeling right now?” I ask.

Billy looks up at me and forces a thin smile.

“It’s over,” he says. “It’s over.”

“No more letters.”

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.