Blanche Moore can sometimes look through a thin strip of unpainted window and see birds flying past. It’s a glimpse of the sky that hangs over the prison chapel, outside the death row cell she’s called home for the past 16 years
Her last day of freedom was July 18, 1989, when she was arrested at her Sandy Cross mobile home and put into the Alamance County jail, charged with murdering her first husband, James Taylor in 1973; her former boyfriend, Raymond Reid in 1986; and attempting to murder her then-husband Rev. Dwight Moore in 1989 — all by arsenic poisoning.
She was convicted of Reid’s murder in 1990 and sentenced to death. She has lived on death row for over 16 years.
“when I came here, I lost everything except family, part of me literally died,” she wrote in a recent letter to her brother. She likened her life now to a party with “lots of people and suddenly, they all go home.”
“There’s a morbid sense of curiosity about going around to cemeteries and digging up bodies.”
Blanche Moore’s defense attorney, Mitch McEntire, Aug. 1, 1989
It was the mysterious illness of Rev. Moore that eventually led to his new wife falling under suspicion by law enforcement for not only his poisoning, but the possible poisoning murders of a half dozen other people.
The summer of 1989 became a nightmare of exhumations from four area cemeteries. James Taylor and Raymond Reid were exhumed from Pine Hill Cemetery. Blanche’s father, Parker D. Kiser, was exhumed from Oakwood Cemetery in Mebane. Isla Taylor, Blanche’s mother-in-law, was exhumed from Alamance Memorial Cemetery. Joe Mitchell, who had worked with Blanche at Kroger, was exhumed from Graham Memorial Cemetery.
Blanche had worked for Kroger many years. That’s where she met Raymond Reid. Blanche would eventually sue Kroger, alleging sexual harassment by a supervisor, and settle for an undisclosed amount. Naturally, the rumor was she got millions. It also became tricky for her and Reid’s relationship, because of his job within the Kroger organization.
Rev. Moore was found to have an arsenic level 120 times normal. When it was brought up in a conversation with law enforcement officers that her former boyfriend, Reid, had also died of a mysterious ailment at a hospital in Winston-Salem, the dominoes began tumbling.
Alamance County District Attorney Steve Balog began seeking exhumations. The more bodies exhumed with some arsenic content, the more fears grew that the list of exhumations would only increase.
There was the very real possibility that prosecutors would seek to exhume Mabel J. Parsons, another former Kroger co-worker; Fred Thomas Vaughn, a route salesman for American Bakeries; Ina P. Vinson, a Kroger customer; and John W. Reiber, a member of Rev. Moore’s church in Carolina. Inside the DA’s office, there was a “short list” of potential exhumations and a “long list.” As soon as they unearthed a body that did not show any signs of arsenic, the exhumations would cease.
The atmosphere became so surreal that cemeteries were being referred to as “Blanche’s landfills.” There were ghastly “jokes” such as “Blanche’s Cookie Recipes” and even a “Ballad of Blanche Moore” that played on the radio. There were almost-daily stories in newspapers, and on radio and television. Blanche’s family, and the families of all the suspected victims were besieged by media attention, some from as far away as Australia, into tales of a “black widow.” It had all the elements of a captivating story.
Blanche Taylor Moore went on trial in a Forsyth County courtroom for the murder of Raymond Reid in October 1990. Six weeks later, she was found guilty and sentenced to be executed on Jan. 18, 1991.
Sam Kiser is Blanche’s baby brother. Even though he was living in Salisbury and working as a hearing instrument specialist when Blanche went on trial, he attended every day of court and became her spokesman. He fielded calls from not only local and regional media, but national names Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, and Geraldo Rivera. Though besieged, Kiser still does not fault the media for its curiosity.
“They were seeking out a story; I understand that.”
Kiser has fielded inquiries into his sister’s case from nearly the beginning. It’s a role he didn’t seek, a role he wishes had not been thrust upon him, but it’s a duty he carries with a certain peace that comes from faith.
“Many people have come up to me and asked, ‘How’s Blanche?’
Once in a while he’ll still get a call from a TV station in America or somewhere else on the planet or a producer for a tabloid show in Hollywood or a writer in New York looking for a story about Blanche’s case.
“If they’re looking for sensation, I tell them we’ve already had that,” he says.
He knows people may look at him and whisper, “there’s Blanche’s brother.”
“I don’t have any shame in that,” he says.
“Some almost apologize for asking about her,” he says. “Some, I can tell, are reluctant to ask, but they want to know.
“What I tell them is she’s coping as best she can with her confinement. She went in (to prison) needing medical attention.”
Blanche Moore was not the picture of health when she entered prison and her health has not improved much. She suffered breast cancer and treatments have been sporadic.
“Her mammograms have not been run on time, and she’s developed problems, such as a kidney infection,” Kiser says. He has complained to the prison administration and remains forceful. He fired off a letter to the warden.
“I won’t put up with a lot of junk,” he says resolutely.
At one point, she weighed 84 pounds and was so near to death one of the guards actually stayed up with her and prayed over her.
It’s an ordeal for Blanche to be sent to a physician outside the prison. She has to be shackled at the legs and wrists and must be accompanied by four guards in two vehicles. Once at the doctor’s office, she is paraded through the waiting area in the restraints.
The side effects of massive doses of chemo and radiation for the cancer have left her extremities in pain, her feet so numb she has to use a walker. She lost her toenails and fingernails. Her curly hair fell out.
She has learned self-treatment. She has learned to use a latex glove and warm water on the small of the back for her asthma.
I visited Blanche Moore at her request. I covered her trial and some of the subsequent appeals and got to know members of the family, none as well as Sam Kiser.
He called me one day and said Blanche wanted me to visit. She remembered me from the trial and had kept up with my writing, and knew there were questions about her life in prison.
A visitor must negotiate a series of five locked gates and be accompanied by a guard to reach the visitor’s room on death row at the Women’s Correctional Institute in Raleigh. Chain link and razor wire line the perimeter. The prison compound is surrounded by tall native pines, belying its proximity to traffic arteries that pound day and night with cars and trucks.
Within the compound are still more chain link enclosures, not unlike kennel dog runs, in which Blanche can get 45 minutes a day of outdoor exercise when weather permits. Voices within the various buildings reverberate through the steel and concrete, mortar and brick. Loud electronic door buzzers sound as they unlock.
Single Cell A, death row, is adjacent to a pleasant little chapel. A sign at the gate oddly notes, “No inmates past this point.”
The visiting room is painted concrete blocks with a trio of long tables and plastic chairs. It could be a room off a church fellowship hall with a table to accommodate a family reunion. The only difference is there is no food and guards walk back and forth by the large window at one end. The sounds of voices in stress or the pounding of large steel doors are constant.
Single Cell A is Blanche’s home. She wears the female death row yellow smock. Around her neck is a small jeweled-cross necklace. Her hair has grown back and remains naturally curly.
Kiser tries to visit his sister at least once a month. This day, he has a bit of a hacking cough, for which Blanche recommends spirit of peppermint.
At one point, the window in Blanche’s cell was painted over. She doesn’t know if it was a retaliatory action by the administration or just more punishment.
“Before, I could at least look out and see nature and the chapel,” she says without anger.
Blanche said she has coped with prison by “making up my mind not to be institutionalized.” She says she has seen those who rely on pills to sleep, to escape the day-in and day-out of permanent prison life. She wears a watch and keeps a calendar. She forces herself to get up and move around, even if she might not feel well that particular day.
Her fight against becoming institutionalized manifested itself when the window was painted over. She wrote letters complaining to the administration. They finally sent back a worker to scrape away part of the paint from the top half of the window.
But even when the sun sets and darkness falls outside, there’s no darkness on the inside. The lights remain on 24 hours a day. Inmates are required to be in bed by 11:30 p.m. and remain there until 5:30. Blanche says she usually goes into her cell around 8 p.m. She wears a mask her brother gave her to block out the unrelenting light when she sleeps.
Breakfast is at 5:30 a.m., lunch is at 10:30 a.m. and supper is at 4 p.m.
She listens to certain radio stations and television where she gets her news. She reads voraciously, knits and crochets. She can carry on an intelligent and up-to-date conversation on world events. Her radio takes her away from the realities of imprisonment.
She’s had two incidents of violence against her, both in her early years of incarceration. Once, she was choked badly and a hefty inmate literally sat on her, nearly suffocating her. In the other attack, she was hit with a broom handle by an inmate while carrying a pot of hot water from the bathrooms for making coffee.
She was “written up” for the incident, but it was later overruled as not being her fault.
When she was in the Alamance County jail early in the case, her attorney, Mitch McEntire, told the media his client got letters that were usually in one of two categories: from the deeply religious “who assume she is guilty and fear her soul is in danger” and others “who take glee at her present circumstances.” There were also the “burn-in-hell” letters.
She continues to get letters today. Some want to be pen pals. Some, from men, propose deeper or more bizarre relationships. These, she says, she throws away. Some are suspicious. She got one from a 13-year-old inquiring about her case and she wondered, “Now what would a 13-year-old know about Blanche Moore?”
She knows many of those letters are due to her infamy. Her first months in the Raleigh prison, even inmates asked for her autograph. She only signed her name in cursive in letters to friends, dubious that her signature to strangers might be sold.
She admits she has entertained thoughts of suicide.
“But,” she reasons, “that would be against the Bible.” She adds, “And it might seem as if it was an admission of guilt.”
Blanche Moore testified at her trial that she did not commit murder. “I know there was arsenic in those men, but I didn’t put it there,” she testified a decade and a half ago. Her resolve remains just as emphatic today.
“I did not kill Raymond Reid. I don’t know anything about Anti-Ant.” Anti-Ant was an arsenic-based poison used, as its name implies, to eradicate ants. It was made by a McLeansville business that, shortly after Blanche’s trial, ceased manufacture.
Kiser admits he, too, has been a doubting Thomas. He’s agonized “and I’ve asked myself, how did she get caught up in this?”
He is convinced his sister is innocent of murder, but he also knows his is a minority opinion.
“I know some people believe she’s guilty and got what she deserved,” he said. “I understand how they feel. We had a family member exhumed, too (his father). It’s easy to form opinions on what we read when all those bodies were being exhumed.”
As he saw the evidence at the six-week trial piling up — testimonies of arsenic levels in hair and fingernails, timetables, nursing observations, handwriting analysts, police reports — he questioned whether or not Blanche was telling him the truth. However, after many hours of direct and honest talk, cajoling and even trying to trick her into a confession, he stands firm in his support of her.
I’ve told her, ‘Blanche, if I was innocent, I’d write to everyone. I would proclaim my innocence.”
Kiser says, “I asked myself, ‘Am I so blind?’ I want the truth. In my natural experiences with her, she couldn’t have done it. I have never had her hesitate when I asked her if she did it.”
She told me, “If I did it and kept covering it up, that’s a sin, too, and I won’t get on that gurney with a lie on my lips.”
The brother and sister still believe Garvin Thomas, a man portrayed as having an obsession with Blanche, committed the murders out of jealousy. A note purportedly written by Thomas, and introduced in court, confessed to the murders. Document examiners for the prosecution and defense jousted over the authorship. In the end, the note apparently played a minor role as the jury came back with a verdict of guilty and a sentence of death.
Thomas was troubled by health issues and had difficulty talking due to a speech impediment. He died before the trial, but Kiser points out Thomas’ letter told of being in certain locations at certain times that could have corresponded with the poisonings. Kiser spent many hours tracking down people who knew Thomas, who could testify to his veracity, but in the end, it has had little bearing on Blanche’s case.
Kiser is disdainful of what he considers prosecutorial and judicial misbehavior during the trial, lack of desire to follow up on Thomas and those who knew him. The appeals process has raised these and other challenges but they have borne no fruit for Blanche’s defense.
Whether justice was served, Kiser knows, is a matter that will never be settled in his mind.
“If she died today, there would still be questions,” he says.
Through the subsequent appeal process, Washington, D.C. attorney William Taylor III stepped up to help pro bono. Even Kiser sees some subtle irony in a man named Taylor defending Blanche Taylor Moore. The family awaits a ruling on Blanche’s second motion for appropriate relief, another legal step in nearly two decades of legal steps.
“I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me.”
Blanche Moore, this daughter of a part-time lay preacher, has struck up correspondence with Catholic nuns, the most famous being Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known opponent of the death penalty. She was portrayed in the movie, “Dead Man Walking.”
Blanche has formed such strong ties with the nuns that when one was diagnosed with cancer, she contributed to a memory book for the woman before she died.
“I see good people like this die,” Blanche says, “And I see I have a wasted life. I can’t vote, I have no citizenship. I’m powerless and preyed upon.”
But this is the wages of prison. Your life does not belong to you. In prison a ham biscuit for Christmas is a big deal. Going outside to breathe 45 minutes worth of fresh air is a big deal. Not being attacked by another inmate is a big deal. Learning to sleep with the lights blazing 24 hours a day is a big deal. Being able to do something as mundane as stuff form letters for the governor is a big deal.
Being imprisoned also means she has not been able to attend the funerals of her mother, Flossie; sister, Virginia or brothers-in-law Robert Simpson and James Montgomery.
For her 74th birthday last month, she bought a Little Debbie cake and some ice cream from the prison canteen and shared them and a sandwich with another inmate.
In a letter to her brother, she admitted her 74th birthday was “sad and lonely.”
“It’s so difficult in this place and I fight to keep my sanity.”
Her letter was written with some blue ink and some red. She explained: “…my life use to be so full of color, family, church, friends, love, happiness, laughter, fun, good colors. I’m not talking about material things, simply the good things that reach down in the soul.”
She ended by saying faith sustains her, even though she lives with a silent cry and awakes with the knowledge she would face another day “only by the grace of a loving, faithful father that continues to keep me in his arms.”
Blanche reflected on the things she misses.
“The hardest part for me is not to be able to get up and get a glass of tea or sit on the front porch and watch nature, or phone a friend, or get into a car and drive to the mall to walk around,” she says. Free people “can get in the car and go. They take (that kind of) life for granted.
“People on outside live by what they see or hear. I live by what I feel here,” she says as she lays her hands on her chest.
An ideal day, if she was a free woman, would be to spend it at her favorite time, Christmas.
“There would no shopping for gifts. I would just make a list of all my loved ones and talk with them or spend quality time with them.”
Blanche does not fear death. She philosophizes that her life has been one of lonely confinement and excruciating pain. To her, death would be almost welcome, she told her brother, “because I would awaken in the presence of God.”