I remember driving home from the hospital the day my first child, a girl, was born, and thinking: I want to pull people out of their cars and shout, I have a daughter!—it seemed that miraculous—and also: if anyone tries to harm this little girl, I’ll kill them.
I don’t recall if in the excitement of that day I thought of Pamela Moss. But if I didn’t, it probably hadn’t been too long since I had, because like many Rochesterians I’d never forgotten the terrible thing that happened to her back in 1962: While walking after school through woods near her Penfield home, Pamela, age 14, was strangled to death and then raped. Rochester was shocked. At a time when sexual attacks and murders of young people were not as common as they seemingly have become, Pam’s killing exposed just how vulnerable our children can be to predators.
Newspapers ran the story on the front page for days—Pam’s disappearance, the discovery of her partially clothed body in a nearby quarry, the hunt for her killer. Every story seemed to feature the same photo: Pam with light-brown bangs, large clear eyes, and a sweet smile.
Two weeks later, a banner headline, “Suspect Admits Pam’s Killing,” announced the arrest of James Robert Moore. The mug shot showed a man in his late-20s, with a thin, angular face, dark hair, and a stony, almost vacant gaze.
It’s been nearly 57 years since Moore pleaded guilty to Pam’s murder. Moore, now 85 and reportedly bedridden, has the dubious honor of being—out of all 48,000 inmates—New York State’s longest-serving prisoner.
Every two years since 1982 his case has come up for parole, and each time the Monroe County district attorney—first Howard Relin, then Michael Green, now Sandra Doorley—has circulated a petition for citizens to sign opposing Moore’s release.
Whether or not Moore should ever get out of prison is not my concern here; that’s a question for the parole board. But I am concerned about these petitions.
“The very basis of the petition. . . is untrue.“–Brian Shiffrin, criminal defense attorney
This is a difficult subject to discuss. The reason I told of my own daughter’s birth is because as a father—and now grandfather—I can imagine how the surviving members of the Moss family want to keep a single-minded focus on punishment for Pam’s killer, and how public discussion of the case may be distressing.
And yet I believe the petitions against Moore’s parole raise troubling issues of law, ethics and public policy, and should be discussed. The current petition, for example, contains errors of fact and omits key information. Indeed, a respected Rochester criminal law expert, Brian Shiffrin, asserts: “the very basis of the petition … is untrue.”
Recently, I met with District Attorney Doorley to discuss these questions. Excerpts from our interview appear below. But first, some background on the case.
Murder and sentencing
Moore, 28, lived in Webster with his wife and three children. He’d been working as a gardener in the Mosses’ neighborhood. Police finally focused on him because of probation records; at the time, he was on probation for a misdemeanor conviction for molesting two young girls near Buffalo. In confessing, Moore said he hadn’t planned the attack, but when he saw Pam that day he approached her as she took a shortcut through the woods on her way to a babysitting job. He said he talked to her of the beauty of the woods, then grabbed her around the waist and suffocated her by putting his arm over her mouth. After she was dead, he raped her and dumped her body face down in shallow water near a quarry.
In the county jail, Moore attempted suicide, but soon agreed to a plea: in exchange for the state not pursuing the death penalty—electrocution at Sing Sing—he would plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a sentence of what was then called “natural life.”
Thinking back on how I felt the day my daughter was born, I later marveled that Pam’s parents were able to forgo what must have been their own similar feelings, and agree to spare Moore’s life. I assumed they did this partly because Pam’s mother was pregnant and the plea deal would spare her the added stress of a trial. Years later, when I interviewed Pam’s father, I learned my assumption had been wrong: he told me he had wanted the death penalty, and his wife only opposed it because she thought her daughter’s killer would suffer more by life in prison.
Moore was sent to Attica, where he again attempted suicide, and then we didn’t hear much about him until 1982 when he first became eligible for parole.
At his parole hearings every two years, Moore presents more or less the same set of facts. He acknowledges responsibility for the crime; in prison he has maintained an exemplary record with almost no behavioral violations, has completed all psychological counseling—including sex-offender counseling, has earned three college-level degrees, has become a teacher of Buddhist meditation, and has married. In 1975 he met Joyce Smith, a social worker and prison volunteer; they married in1989 and have maintained a stable relationship for 30 years.
His bid for parole has been turned down 19 times.
Petition drives begin
What began in 1982 with the district attorney suggesting that citizens write to the parole board opposing Moore’s release has evolved into a kind of public ritual: every two years (and lately more often) a parole hearing for Moore is set for late summer or early fall, and a couple of months before that the DA—and sometimes the county sheriff and county executive—announce a “petition drive” to keep Moore in prison. Early on, the petitions were on paper; now they’re online.
The petitions, while varying somewhat from year to year, all recount what is claimed to be a “deal” or “bargain” that Moore made: that in exchange for the Moss family not pursuing the death penalty, he would spend the rest of his life in prison. The petitions further claim that it was only a later change in the law that made Moore eligible for parole at all, and that for Moore even to seek parole violates the spirit of the “deal.”
“I’m still fighting for justice. I’m still fighting for Pamela Moss.“– Sandra Doorley, District Attorney
Local press has echoed law enforcement’s position. On Aug.11 1998, for example, the Democrat & Chroniclestated: “Pamela’s parents agreed to let (Moore) plead guilty to murder if he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the chance of parole.” On July 28, 2018, the paper again claimed Moore pleaded guilty “with the condition that he never be paroled” and that his parole eligibility was due only to a change in state law “in the 1970s.”
This year’s petition repeats the same points. The Moss family, it states, agreed not to seek the death penalty only on the assurance that Moore “would never again be free” and that Moore and his attorneys “accepted this condition.” Further, Moore’s eligibility for parole is due only to “changes to NYS law,” and Moore’s willingness even to seek parole is “an alarming disregard for the agreement” he made and is “fundamentally wrong.”
I believe these statements in the petition are false.
Meeting the Moss family and Moore
In recent years, I’ve learned what I could about this case. In addition to meeting with Pam’s dad—her mother had died earlier; he, too, is now deceased—I also met Pam’s brother and a sister who live in the area. With them, I watched old home movies: Pam in Highland Park holding her little sister up to see and smell the lilacs; Christmas at home in 1961 with Pam opening a gift, a record player; Pam at Ontario Beach. At the family’s invitation, I looked through a box of Pam’s belongings: bronzed baby shoes; a hairbrush with strands of fine, light-brown hair still clinging; and school papers written in a neat, longhand script. In a seventh-grade essay called “My Autobiography” Pam described her “hopes and plans” for the future, including college, nursing school and maybe being a flight attendant. The papers reflect an intelligent, serious girl—a promising life cut short.
I’ve also talked to a former neighbor of Moore’s who still lived next door to what had been the Moore family home in Webster, to Moore’s younger brother, who lived near Jamestown, and to Moore’s current wife.
In 2007, I went to Cayuga Correctional Facility south of Auburn, where Moore, then 73, was being held. He was still able to walk then.
Dressed in a green prison uniform with a white T-shirt showing under the top, he was smaller than I’d expected, probably not much over 5 feet 4 inches. He moved slowly, with a limp. I’d learned he was born with a clubfoot and despite multiple surgeries in his youth the condition still affected his gait. We sat across a table from each other. He had close-cropped, gray hair; a trim, short beard; and age spots on his forehead.
“I created a lot of hell for a lot of people,” he acknowledged.
After his conviction, his wife divorced him, and he’d had almost no contact with any of his children since. I asked about grandchildren. “If I have any, I don’t know,” he said.
Why hadn’t he ever contacted the Moss family to express remorse? I asked. He said he’d considered it, but thought, “It’d be rubbing salt in the wounds. They’ve suffered enough. I do have a lot of remorse, though,” he said. “I’m extremely sorry for the family, and that it’s caused them so much pain over the years.”
(In July, Moore published “Freedom Within: A Prison Memoir,” in which he states: “I have never denied my crime. I deeply regret the intense pain I caused for others—and the hell I created for myself.”)
I asked Moore if he thought he was still dangerous, especially to young girls.
He said he was willing to leave that question up to the psychiatrists and other doctors who had examined him. “But I can’t run from here to that fence over there. Plus, if I ever get out, I assume I’ll have a bracelet”—an electronic monitoring device.
He spoke about his achievements in prison—particularly his work as a teacher with younger inmates—and about a sense of calm he’s found through Buddhism.
“I can’t change what I did that day,” he said, “but I sure as hell can change myself. I was ashamed of who I was when I came in here—that’s why I tried to kill myself—but I’m not ashamed of who I’ve become.”
A guard came over to our table. “Jimmy, time’s up,” he said.
Moore stood, turned, and limped away.
Was the “deal” real?
The District Attorney’s petition is problematic for several reasons but the main one is the claim it makes that Moore made a deal and that by seeking parole he is breaking it. In fact, there could not have been any such deal because the law under which Moore pleaded guilty clearly did provide for the possibility of parole.
Here are the facts: in 1960—three years before Moore’s guilty plea—New York amended the law for punishment of first-degree murder so that the term “natural life” meant serving a minimum of 40 years and then being eligible for parole.The 40 years could be further reduced by one-third for good behavior, so a prisoner sentenced to “natural life” actually could be eligible for parole in just over 26 years.
The 1960 bill that made this change in the law aimed “to liberalize … long term or excessive sentences,” wrote William Leonard, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections, in a letter dated March 15, 1960. He had the support not only of the Legislature, but also prison and parole officials, the attorney general, and the governor.
That Moore’s sentence of “natural life” really meant 40 years and then eligibility for parole was understood by the sentencing judge, John Lomenzo.
“When Mr. Moore was sentenced to ‘natural life,’ it meant 40 years,” Lomenzo wrote in a letter on Aug. 23, 2001.
Similarly, Anthony Annucci, deputy commissioner of correctional services, reflecting on Moore’s sentencing, wrote on Oct. 3, 2001: “(D)efendants sentenced to a term of natural life (were) … eligible for parole … after the service of 40 years.”
So for the petitions to claim that when Moore was sentenced, prosecution and defense lawyers in Rochester did not know about the then-current definition of “natural life” strains credulity. Whether or not at the time prosecutors ever explained this to the Moss family is not known. But the 22-page transcript of Moore’s sentencing hearing contains not a word about any “deal,” “bargain,” or “agreement” by which Moore waived his right later to seek parole.
For an independent view on this, I asked Rochester attorney Brian Shiffrin to look over the case. Shiffrin is a longtime criminal defense lawyer and widely respected for his work on criminal defense appeals, including at the New York Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an email to me, Shiffrin wrote: “The petitioning campaign against the granting of parole to Mr. Moore, originally led by then District Attorney Howard Relin and now by District Attorney Sandra Doorley, is premised on the inaccurate and misleading contention that when Mr. Moore entered his guilty plea to a sentence of his natural life he was ineligible for parole.”
Shiffrin noted that when Moore pleaded guilty in 1963 the controlling statute, as amended three years earlier, stated that a person serving a sentence for the term of his natural life was eligible for release on parole as he would be if his sentence was 40 years to life. He also would be eligible for good-time credit of one-third off of the minimum.
“Thus, at the time of his plea, the law provided that Mr. Moore was eligible for parole as early as 1989,” Shiffrin wrote. “The subsequent change in law, merely changed his parole eligibility date to 1982.
“Consequently, the petition is simply wrong … (and) it is difficult to understand how District Attorney Doorley can be unaware that the very basis of the petition she is circulating is untrue. In any event, ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
Discussion with Doorley
Recently, I met with District Attorney Doorley to discuss this case, especially the petition drive. Here are brief excerpts from our conversation:
ROCHESTER BEACON: When did you become aware of this case?
SANDRA DOORLEY: I always remembered this being one of (former District Attorney) Howard Relin’s big things. Howard would always gear up, especially during Corn Hill (Festival) and he’d always have a booth and petition signing and all that. It was always midsummer and he’d gather signatures. That’s something we’ve continued to do.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Did you write this year’s petition?
DOORLEY: We did, and we put it on our county website and then I do my social media. I ask people to like it, share it, sign it. I’m getting actually great responses: over 1,100 in two-and-a-half weeks. We’ll probably submit it middle of September because I want to be sure the parole board has everything before they begin looking at this come October. I’ve also had a letter from one of (Pamela Moss’) sisters. ‘This is something we still talk about all the time,’ she wrote. ‘Thank you for not giving up hope.’
ROCHESTER BEACON: What is the hope?
DOORLEY: That he spends the rest of his natural life in prison. The family is firm that that was the agreement they had entered into in order to take the death penalty off the table. … I’ve always been an advocate for truth in sentencing.
ROCHESTER BEACON: But at the time of sentencing, under New York State law, ‘natural life’ actually meant 40 years before eligibility for parole, and less with good behavior.
DOORLEY: Yes, that’s what I did read … and I think the (sentencing) judge even said that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: That’s right. Judge Lomenzo even put it in writing.
DOORLEY: I am aware of that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, however we say it in layman’s terms, legally in 1962 a sentence of ‘natural life’—the sentence Moore received—meant serving 40 years and then being eligible for parole, or even sooner with good behavior.
DOORLEY: I don’t know if that was explained to the family.
ROCHESTER BEACON: But certainly Moore’s lawyer would have understood what the law was at the time.
DOORLEY: True, true.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So why are we still having these petitions claiming that ‘changes in the law’ are what allows Moore to be eligible for parole and claiming that he is somehow reneging on a deal never to seek parole? It simply isn’t accurate because he was eligible for parole without any changes in the law.
DOORLEY: I’m not so sure I agree with that. I’d have to go back and really read the law and the changes that have happened. There’ve been so many changes since 1963 and I’m not really sure how the parole system worked back then.
But I think it was the parents’ understanding, the community’s understanding, that it would be the Webster dictionary (definition) of natural life, not the law.
Risk to the community?
I also asked Doorley about the petition’s claim that if Moore were released he’d be a “risk to the community.”
ROCHESTER BEACON: Your petition also says that if Moore were paroled, it would place the community at risk.
DOORLEY: And I do still believe that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: James Moore is 85 years old.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Are you familiar with his physical condition?
DOORLEY: I’m not at this moment.
ROCHESTER BEACON: He’s been bedridden since 2017, confined to a medical unit. He has a bone infection in his left leg, wears a padded boot, and has had a fractured left hip. He has tremors. He has kidney disease. He can’t move out of bed without either mechanical or staff assistance to get to a wheelchair. So how is he a risk to the community?
DOORLEY: I like that you’re playing devil’s advocate. I didn’t know he’s in that bad health. But in New Hampshire they just had a 77-year-old man that they released because they didn’t think he was a threat and he went out and killed someone.
ROCHESTER BEACON: But is it disingenuous to tell the public that his release would place the community at risk?
DOORLEY: I don’t believe so. I’ve also prosecuted people in wheelchairs, people who have disabilities, who have lured little children to their laps and have done horrible, terrible things.
ROCHESTER BEACON: The petition also says Moore molested ‘dozens’ of other girls. Where does that figure come from? If I recall, the court record refers to misdemeanors in Buffalo involving two girls.
DOORLEY: You know what? I misspoke. It’s two; it’s two little girls. I had depositions from two girls from Erie County. I didn’t verify that. I could be going off of newspaper reports. (An aide to the district attorney says “dozens” was based on a statement in Moore’s confession.)
(The version of this year’s petition that people signed contained the statement about “dozens” of other girls, but the statement was later omitted from the version of the petition submitted by the DA’s office to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.)
Burden on taxpayers?
In 1960, when New York changed the penal law to allow parole for those sentenced to “natural life,” a government report noted that, “Budgetary savings can result from this bill since it is cheaper to keep inmates on parole rather than provide institutional care.”
Today, by one estimate, while it costs the state about $30,000 a year to house a regular prisoner, the cost to house a geriatric inmate may exceed $100,000 annually. Moore is now housed in a medical unit at Coxsackie Correctional Facility south of Albany.
I asked Doorley about this.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you know the cost differential in housing a geriatric prisoner versus a younger prisoner?
DOORLEY: No, but I would suspect it would be costly. I understand that, and trust me, I do see part of my job as looking out for the fiscal well being of the community and to a certain extent the state. Now we’re making better choices and smarter choices in New York and in Monroe County about who should be in prison.
But if you release an 85-year-old into the community with nowhere to go and without any resources, where is he better off: in prison where he’s being taken care of or dropped at a corner or at a boarding house?
ROCHESTER BEACON: Mr. Moore been married for the last 30-odd years and would have a place to live if he were released.
DOORLEY: He does? I didn’t know that. … Even so, you’re saying he’s got a place to live, but he’s still going to be on Medicare. If he’s in as bad condition as you think he is, if he has to go into a nursing home, the state’s going to have costs either way.
As far as I can tell, of all those convicted of murder over the years in Monroe County, Moore is the only one whom our elected officials have targeted—decade after decade—with formal petition drives opposing parole.
“Prosecutors are supposed to be ministers of justice, not ministers of vengeance“– Abbe Smith, legal ethics expert
Does singling out one prisoner for special treatment violate legal ethics?
Some years ago, I posed this question to one of the nation’s most respected legal ethicists, former Hofstra Law School Dean Monroe Freedman. Now deceased, Freedman was known nationally for his writings on legal ethics and called “a pioneer in the field” by The New York Times. In 1991, when Rochester Institute of Technology was found to be secretly consulting for the CIA and wanted a respected legal scholar to head a fact-finding team to investigate and report to the community, it chose Freedman.
At my request, Freedman reviewed the Moore case and gave me permission to quote his remarks.
“What we have here,” he said, “appears to be a prosecutorial focus on retribution. That is, this man did something terrible so we’re going to make him suffer, just to get even. A prosecutor can run for office again and again on his determination not to let this criminal out.”
A district attorney has two functions, noted Freedman: one is to prosecute, honestly and fairly; the other is to do justice. But when does the vigorous pursuit of justice become the vigorous pursuit of vengeance?
“And what’s wrong with this whole situation,” he concluded, “is that it is excessively vindictive. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the man is still potentially dangerous and should remain in prison, the prosecutor is adding to the man’s punishment not just by keeping him in prison but by hyping public opprobrium against him, and that is a form of additional punishment that is not provided for in law.”
A contemporary authority on legal ethics is Abbe Smith, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. Smith teaches and writes on criminal defense and legal ethics and, with Monroe Freedman, co-authored the book “Understanding Lawyers’ Ethics.”
Smith also reviewed the case, and spoke with me over the phone.
“It’s so easy to stir up public wrath against someone who’s committed a dreadful crime, especially one that involves sex offending,” she says. “What could be easier? For prosecutors, it’s low-hanging fruit. Many a politician has made his or her career that way.”
But this prisoner’s sentence reflects the punishment that was deemed appropriate for the crime, and the sentence was life with the possibility of parole, Smith observes.
“It’s not up to a prosecutor to keep re-sentencing this man, effectively circumventing the law based on no new data,” she says. “And I think the prosecutor is shirking her duties by saying this is about fealty to the family. Certainly, family members can be taken into consideration, but prosecutors are supposed to do justice broadly, not just exact vengeance, and this feels like vengeance to me.”
Smith believes a prosecutor “shouldn’t be in the business of drumming up public anger for a person who hasn’t committed new crimes.”
“Prosecutors are supposed to be ministers of justice, not ministers of vengeance,” she says. “I’m sorry, but what this prosecutor is doing seems cruel and singularly unforgiving.”
Smith points to the longstanding American embrace of the notion of redemption—that people can work to make a change in themselves.
“No doubt there are a small number of people who are so damaged that they’ll always be dangerous, but this guy doesn’t sound like that,” she observes. “He has not engaged in the kind of conduct while incarcerated that would suggest he’s a risk.”
“Instead, he’s a model inmate,” Smith adds. “He’s married to a social worker. He’s done what he can to be of use despite 57 years in a cage. Is it no longer possible for a human being in the United States who erred to discharge his or her debt to society and get another chance? Is that no longer who we are as a country or as a people?”
I asked Doorley about the ethical issues raised by Freedman and Smith.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Legal ethicists warn that if a prosecutor singles out one individual for special treatment it raises the question of whether we’re administering the law equally to everybody.
DOORLEY: OK, I can see that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Yet hundreds of felons in New York State, including murderers—some of them even cop killers—have nevertheless been released on parole, so how do we justify the Monroe County district attorney singling out one person to never be released? How is that equal justice under the law?
DOORLEY: It’s respect for the family. Frankly, if there weren’t still family members actively concerned about it, I probably wouldn’t be doing it. But this family member, who may be the daughter who had not yet been born (at the time of the murder), is remembering how it affected her parents. And for that legacy, and the legacy of Pamela Moss, I’m going to continue to do it.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Legal ethicists also warn that sometimes the pursuit of justice can edge over into retribution or vengeance, and can become excessively vindictive, which is not consistent with equal justice.
DOORLEY: I agree. I agree.
ROCHESTER BEACON: And yet our district attorneys have been relentless on this one case.
DOORLEY: I don’t believe it’s vindictive. I keep going back to the facts. This was a predator. This was someone who had a history, a pattern, who had many, many victims. Who murdered and then raped a young woman, in that order, to the point where she begged for her life. I don’t see any remorse in anything he’s every done or said.
ROCHESTER BEACON: He did express remorse to me when I interviewed him in prison.
DOORLEY: But do you think he was he saying it just because he wanted to get out? Do you think he was sincere?
ROCHESTER BEACON: I’m not a psychologist, but if you’re asking me my personal reaction, yes, I think he was sincere. I’ve talked to others to whom he’s expressed remorse, as well. Do you see any role for rehabilitation and the possibility of redemption?
DOORLEY: There definitely is a place for it. It’s got to be true and it’s got to be honest.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Any application of it to this case?
DOORLEY: Not that I see. … Look, I want the community to know that I’m still fighting for them. That’s what it boils down to. I’m a fighter. And this is one of those cases where I think it still deserves a fight.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What are you fighting for?
DOORLEY: I’m still fighting for justice. I’m still fighting for Pamela Moss. Even though it’s been 56 years, going on 57 years, since she’s been dead, we still have to remember victims. It’s good for the community to be reminded that there are people like Mr. Moore out there, people we’re dealing with every day who are predators, who abuse our children.
At 85 what is he capable of doing? I don’t know. Is he totally harmless? I don’t know. Could he still continue? I don’t know. But there’s a possibility that he could, and for that I feel like I’ve got to protect the community.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Thank you for your time. I know it’s a lot easier being on this side of the desk than on your side where you’ve got to make all the tough judgment calls. I appreciate all you do to keep this community safe. This is a difficult case to discuss; I hope I didn’t give you too hard a time, did I?
DOORLEY: No, I was able to make my arguments. I am a trial attorney, my friend.
On Sept. 5, the district attorney’s office submitted this year’s petition opposing Moore’s parole to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. It carried 1,238 signatures. Moore’s parole hearing is scheduled for mid-October.
As I’ve learned, thoughtful and well-intentioned people can disagree about whether actions of our elected officials over the years have promoted or undermined justice. This is a tough case built on a tragedy, and people can have different answers.
What’s your opinion? I welcome your comments.
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon.