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Murderer of 11th Circuit Judge Denied Recusal

(CN) - A death-row inmate who killed an 11th Circuit judge in 1989 with a mail bomb is not entitled to the recusal of judges who never knew the victim, the federal appeals court ruled.

Walter Leroy Moody Jr. built four mail bombs after he lost his appeal of a 1972 jury verdict, convicting him for possessing an unregistered destructive device.

Moody sent the first to 11th Circuit Judge Robert Vance who was instantly killed by the bomb at his Alabama home.

The second bomb killed civil rights attorney Robert Robinson in Savannah, Ga.

The third and fourth bombs, sent to the 11th Circuit headquarters and Jacksonville NAACP office, were received, but left unopened because news about the other bombs had hit.

When Moody was charged with the murders, all the federal judges within the 11th Circuit and Northern District of Georgia recused themselves from the case.

His trial was presided over by Judge Edward Devitt from the District of Minnesota.

A jury ultimately convicted Moody of 71 counts, and sentenced him to seven life terms.

On appeal to the 11th Circuit, a special panel of three judges from the 4th Circuit upheld the conviction and sentences.

Alabama then charged Moody with capital murder, he was found guilty, and a state judge sentenced him to death in 1997.

After exhausting his appeals in state courts, Moody filed for federal habeas relief.

U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler of the Northern District of Alabama declined to recuse himself.

He had been appointed to the federal bench in 2003, long after Moody's original conviction, but Moody petitioned to the 11th Circuit to order Coogler's recusal.

Moody then separately moved for a recusal of all judges on the 11th Circuit, requesting the court transfer the petition to a different circuit.

"Mr. Moody argues that Judge Vance's murder, which occurred more than two decades ago, necessitates the recusal of all circuit judges on, and all district and magistrate judges within, the Eleventh Circuit," the court said in an unsigned decision Friday.

Judges Charles Wilson, Beverly Martin and Adalberto Jordan, all Democratic appointees to the court, sat on last week's three-judge panel.

Unlike Moody's last appearance before the 11th Circuit, however, none of the panel members were federal judges at the time of Vance's death, or personally knew Judge Vance or any member of his family.

"In short, the only connection between the members of this panel and Mr. Moody's current case is our current service on the Eleventh Circuit and Judge Vance's service on the same court at the time of his death in 1989," the opinion states. "And that is not enough."

An independent observer might doubt that any federal judge could, without bias, hear Moody's habeas petition, but "such a doubt would extend to all federal judges - regardless of their circuit or district - and would, if disqualifying, prevent Mr. Moody from having a federal forum in which to obtain review of his state capital conviction and sentence," the 17-page opinion states.

For the same reasons, Moody is not entitled to Coogler's recusal.

Like the 11th Circuit panel members, Coogler was not a federal judge at the time of Vance's death, and had no personal relationship with him.

"To the extent that Judge Coogler could be characterized as belonging to a prospective 'victim class' of district judges in this case, the same characterization would apply to all federal district judges nationwide," the court said.

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