On December 16, 1989, Judge Robert Vance unwrapped a shoebox-sized parcel that had been delivered to his home in Mountain Brook, Alabama, unaware that it contained a deadly pipe bomb. The explosion that tore through his kitchen killed him immediately. His wife, Helen, was seriously injured in the blast, but ultimately she survived.
The judge had received no death threats and had not sought the protection of law enforcement agents. The bomb that killed him had arrived innocuously, delivered in the mail like many other parcels during the Christmas period. Until then, there was nothing to suggest he had been targeted by terrorists. And curiously, no one claimed responsibility for the attack.
In fact, it’s rare for federal judges to be murdered at all. Judge Vance was only the third judge to be assassinated in the United States during the 20th century. In due course, the bombing was considered an attack on the judicial system itself. Tragically, however, the murder of Judge Vance was only the start…
On December 18 a second package wrapped in brown paper arrived at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in downtown Atlanta. It contained a pipe bomb surrounded by nails. Fortunately, security guards detected the bomb using an X-ray machine, and it was defused by the authorities before it could cause any damage.
But Robert Robinson, a 41-year-old attorney from Savannah, Georgia, was not so lucky. On the same afternoon, he opened a package at his desk, detonating a hidden pipe bomb that blew out the windows of his downtown office, tore off his right arm and his left hand and caused serious damage to his legs. He died in hospital three hours later.
Meanwhile, a parcel had also arrived at the Jacksonville, Florida, offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – a prominent civil rights organization. The mail opener was busy that day, so she set it aside until later. The next morning, in a lucky twist of fate, she heard a news report about suspect packages. The parcel did indeed contain a bomb, but the police were thankfully able to defuse it.
Colombian cartels were immediately suspected of the attacks, partly because Judge Vance dealt with numerous drug cases. Robinson, meanwhile, had been scheduled to attend a community event on drug abuse on the day he died. However, Miami’s federal Drug Enforcement Administration dismissed such suspicions as not fitting “the pattern of threats … received from Colombians in the last few years.”
Investigators instead began exploring a possible political motive. Judge Vance had long been involved in the civil rights movement. In 1968 he’d been chairman of the Alabama Democrats and had included African Americans in the state delegation of the Democratic National Convention for the first time. And in 1978 he was appointed to the Federal bench by President Jimmy Carter.
Robinson, who was himself an African American with ties to the NAACP, had fought a long-running desegregation case against schools in Savannah in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. As an alderman, he also represented some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. And while he was not considered a radical or a political provocateur, he did believe in gun control – and fought for it.
The political connections between Vance, Robinson, the NAACP and 11th Circuit Court of Appeals led investigators to believe that a white supremacist may have been responsible for the bombings. In fact, a white supremacy group had apparently sent a letter to a Mississippi television station in August 1989 “declaring war” on the 11th Circuit.
The theory was soon debunked, however. An expert who defused one of the unexploded bombs approached the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, claiming that he recognized the bomb’s unique design. Specifically, it featured four rods with welded ends that enhanced the bomb’s explosive potential. The expert had seen this once before, 17 years earlier.
In 1972 a softly-spoken man from Georgia, Walter Leroy Moody Jr., had injured his first wife, Hazel, with a very similar homemade device that had detonated inside his house. But Hazel had not been the target of the bomb. Instead, Moody had intended to send it to a car dealer responsible for repossessing his vehicle.
Moody was subsequently incarcerated in a federal penitentiary for four years. Upon release, he mounted an appeal to have the conviction expunged. He apparently had ambitions of becoming a lawyer, but the conviction prevented him from realizing them. In August 1989 his appeal was definitively rejected by the 11th Circuit and the conviction was upheld.
Moody had in fact sought to overturn the conviction by paying two acquaintances – Julie Linn-West and her mother Susan Eckstrom – to tell the authorities that the bomb had been planted there by someone else. Yet despite Moody threatening to hurt them, Linn-West later provided prosecutors with compelling evidence of his involvement in the 1989 murders of Judge Vance and Robinson.
In addition to video and audio recordings of Linn-West’s meetings with Moody, investigators discovered that Moody’s girlfriend, Susan McBride, had assisted Moody by purchasing packing and postal materials, often at some distance from his home. And yet more evidence was discovered during two searches of his house in Rex, Georgia.
On July 10, 1990, Moody was indicted on charges relating to his bribery of Linn-West and Eckstrom. And on November 7, 1990, he was indicted for the murders of Judge Vance and Robinson. “Through the proceedings, Moody, a dark-haired man with piercing eyes, sat with his head lowered, doodling on a pad,” wrote journalist Rogers Worthington in a June 27, 1991, Chicago Tribune report.
Prosecutors argued that Moody had sought revenge on the court system following the failure of his appeal attempt. The attacks on Robinson and the NAACP had been a calculated diversion, intended to make investigators believe that white supremacists had been responsible. Moody was described as a “stealth bomber” by Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Freeh. “He tried to anticipate everything in this case,” Freeh said in his closing remarks to the court. “And he almost succeeded.”
Moody was found guilty on all counts and sent to jail for multiple life terms. Ultimately, he was sentenced to death by electrocution. And on February 13, 1997, he was transferred to death row at Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama. By July 2017 he was the state’s oldest prisoner awaiting execution, at the age of 82.
Meanwhile, Judge Vance continues to be remembered for his service to society. In 1990 Congress approved the renaming of the federal building and courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama, as the “Robert S. Vance Federal Building and United States Courthouse.” And every year the Robert S. Vance Forum on the Bill of Rights is hosted by the Federal Bar Association’s Atlanta chapter.
The murder of Judge Vance shook the nation. Long before Moody was identified as the killer, commentators rightly labelled the killing as an assault on the nation’s institutions. Indeed, nothing is more essential to a just society than its judiciary. And few responsibilities are as serious as protecting a nation’s judges.