A pro-execution pastor’s death row journey with a murderer

Minister bonds with William Sallie and finds peace, pain
The Rev. Larry Townsend, the minister for William Sallie — the ninth inmate executed in Georgia in 2016 — talks about Sallie at his home in Hampton on Wednesday, December 15, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The Rev. Larry Townsend, the minister for William Sallie — the ninth inmate executed in Georgia in 2016 — talks about Sallie at his home in Hampton on Wednesday, December 15, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Five years and four months ago, the Rev. Larry Townsend met condemned murderer William Sallie in a visiting room at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson.

Sallie’s mother, who lives in Indiana, had asked Townsend to visit and counsel her son as he waited to be executed for killing his father-in-law in 1990, a murder committed during a bitter divorce and child custody fight.

Townsend agreed to meet with the death row inmate even though the pastor and his church — the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — support the death penalty.

“I believe that capital punishment is biblical,” said Townsend, a retired Army colonel and dentist who went on to become a minister.

But, Townsend said, “God had a plan over five years ago and, evidently, I was in his plan. Everything that’s happened has been God’s doing.”

On Dec. 6, Sallie became the ninth prisoner executed in Georgia in 2016. Townsend sat with Sallie just hours before his lethal injection, and he was in the execution chamber as a witness.

Townsend, 67, had never been inside a prison or jail until his first meeting with Sallie in 2011.

From then on, once a month for two hours, the preacher and death penalty supporter sat knee-to-knee with a condemned murderer free of leg or waist chains.

“I never felt ill at ease,” Townsend said. “I never felt anything was going to happen to me. It was like a peace I can’t explain.”

The pastor completed his “journey” with Sallie by traveling to Indiana to preside over his funeral and burial.

“He (Sallie) never denied killing his father-in-law,” Townsend said. “He did what he did. As I grew in my journey with him and him with me … I realized that was a one-time event for him. Did he deserve to be incarcerated? Did he deserve consequences for what he did, for the crimes he did? Yes.”

But, Townsend said, the death penalty was misapplied in Sallie’s case.

The family of Sallie’s father-in-law has not responded to telephone calls seeking comment. Sallie’s mother also has not publicly commented, preferring to keep her son’s past a family secret, according to Townsend.

The Crime

With the marriage ending, Sallie struck his wife, Robin, during an argument in December 1989. Robin Sallie then filed for divorce and took their 2-year-old son to live with her family in Bacon County.

A few weeks after Robin Sallie moved in with her parents and younger sister and brother, William Sallie picked up the boy under the pretense of having a visit. Instead, Sallie took his son to Indiana, where Sallie had grown up.

A judge in Indiana eventually ruled that the child had to be returned to his mother in Georgia.

Sallie had a friend buy him a gun, followed his son to South Georgia, and used a fake name to rent a mobile home in nearby Liberty County.

Shortly after midnight on March 29, 1990, Sallie broke into the Alma home of John and Linda Moore. He shot John Moore six times as he slept, then fired four shots to wound his mother-in-law, Linda Moore.

Sallie handcuffed Linda Moore to her 9-year-old son, Justin, leaving them and his toddler son in the bedroom with John Moore’s body. Sallie then took his estranged wife and her 17-year-old sister to his rented trailer and sexually assaulted them.

He released the sisters hours later after begging them not to seek criminal charges.

The Trials

In 1991 Sallie was convicted and sentenced to die. But a new trial was ordered on appeal because of a conflict of interest — Sallie’s defense attorney in the first trial was also a full-time law clerk in the Waycross Judicial Circuit, which includes Bacon County, where the murder occurred.

In 2001 Sallie was again convicted and sentenced to die by a jury in Houston County, where the trial was moved because of pre-trial publicity.

This undated file photo made available by the Georgia Department of Corrections shows William Sallie, who was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 6, 2016, for murdering his father-in-law in 1990. (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)

icon to expand image

It later came out that a juror in that second trial would likely have been disqualified had she not misled attorneys and the judge during jury selection. No one knew there was a potential appeal on the basis of juror bias until after a crucial filing deadline had passed.

That juror — who had experienced domestic abuse, four bitter divorces, and child custody fights similar to those in the Sallie marriage — told an investigator for Sallie’s lawyers that she’d pressured six other jurors to vote for death.

According to an affidavit attached to Sallie’s clemency petition, that juror — whom The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been unable to reach for comment — told the investigator: “I said that laws can change and he could be set free. … They (other jurors) tried to push that he had found God in prison, but what person in prison hasn’t?”

The Criticism

That juror issue confounds Townsend.

“I really think the Georgia judicial system blew it, and I will go to my grave with that same feeling,” he said.

Townsend referenced a New York Times op-ed, published Dec. 5, in which retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher discusses the Sallie case in denouncing "specific problems with the way capital cases are handled."

The pastor also referenced the case of Brian Nichols, who in 2005 murdered a judge, a court stenographer and a deputy at the Fulton County Courthouse, then killed a federal agent several hours later. Because a Fulton jury could not agree unanimously on a death sentence, Nichols is serving several back-to-back sentences of life without parole.

Townsend’s son-in-law, coincidentally, was a deputy assigned to the Fulton County Courthouse at the time of the Nichols killing spree.

The Execution

After Sallie’s execution warrant was signed in mid-November, Townsend’s and Sallie’s conversations about faith and forgiveness became more urgent.

“I told him how he was in good company with Jesus, himself … a condemned criminal,” Townsend said. “And with Paul and Peter in the Bible. … Never forget the thief on the cross with Jesus.”

Townsend said he told Sallie that if his execution were carried out, "'You've got to know that you're going to be with Jesus in Heaven.'"

"He confessed what he needed to confess," Townsend said. "I said, 'God has wiped your slate clean. You may have to face the punishment for your earthly sins, but now you don't have to face your heavenly damnation through your belief in Jesus Christ."

Hours before the scheduled time of the execution, Townsend performed the Lutheran commendation of the dying, using grape juice instead of wine.

Hampton, GA — The Rev. Larry Townsend said his last words to William Sallie were to ask a favor. “‘Will you say hello to Jesus for me, and when you see me coming up to Heaven (will you) come over to greet me? … I’m looking forward to the day I see you again.’” For five years and four months, Townsend ministered to Sallie, who was put to death by lethal injection on Dec. 6, becoming the ninth inmate executed in Georgia in 2016. 		 HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

icon to expand image

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Townsend said his last words to Sallie were to ask a favor. “‘Will you say hello to Jesus for me, and when you see me coming up to Heaven (will you) come over to greet me? I don’t know when it will be, but I’m looking forward to the day I see you again.’”

The next morning, Townsend drove the 700 miles to Indiana with Sallie’s parents.

“I do not regret one second of the last five years and four months,” Townsend said. “My journey with him has strengthened my faith. I don’t get angry with God. Things happen. He allows them to happen. And we don’t know what (God is) thinking. Maybe he wanted William with him now. Maybe he wanted to use William … to show people if you’re going to give out the death sentence, tighten it up a little bit. … Save it for the worst of the worst and give a little leeway if something is uncovered after the fact.”