- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - She was the Black Widow from Central Casting:

Southern and demure, with big ‘80s hair and a string of pearls. A preacher’s daughter, a preacher’s wife. A grandmother, even, secretly slipping arsenic into food - like her homemade banana pudding - hoping to induce slow, painful deaths for those closest to her.

Blanche Taylor Moore.

Or around these parts, simply Blanche.

Twenty-five years ago last month, a Forsyth County jury found Blanche guilty of first-degree murder in the 1986 arsenic-poisoning death of Raymond Reid, her longtime boyfriend.

She was 57 when the same jury sentenced her to death on Nov. 16, 1990.

Technically, she was convicted for killing Reid and Reid alone.

But in reality, she stood trial as a serial killer, the presumed perpetrator of a string of arsenic poisonings - some fatal - that investigators, prosecutors and family members believed began in 1966.

Father. Mother-in-law. Sister-in-law. First husband.

And the Rev. Dwight Moore, her second husband, poisoned five days after their wedding in April 1989. By surviving what normally would have been a lethal dose of arsenic, Moore lived to testify, to seal his wife’s fate.

“The only thing these victims had in common was chronic arsenic poisoning and their romantic or personal association with Blanche Taylor Moore,” said Vincent Rabil, a former Forsyth County prosecutor, now an assistant capital defender, who helped convict Blanche.

Today, Blanche remains at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women. She is one of 148 people awaiting execution in North Carolina.

At 82, she is the state’s oldest death-row inmate, the second-longest serving and one of only two women.

We weren’t able to ask her how she’s doing or what she has done to pass the time for 25 years. State prison officials require written consent from the attorneys of death row inmates before forwarding requests for interviews, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

Washington-based attorney William Taylor III, who has represented Moore since 1995, was considering our request at publication time.

Many others involved in the case either can’t talk or don’t want to.

Dwight Moore, who remarried and moved to Virginia, died of natural causes in 2013.

Lead Forsyth County prosecutor Janet Branch, whose crying spells in the courtroom nearly prompted a mistrial, committed suicide in October.

Mitchell McEntire, one of Blanche’s defense attorneys who still maintains a practice in Graham, didn’t return a call.

The details of her case, however, are preserved in hundreds of newspaper articles, books, even a made-for-TV movie, with former “Bewitched” star Elizabeth Montgomery cast as Blanche.

The mysterious deaths, spanning three decades.

Arsenic-laden bodies exhumed from cemeteries in Alamance County.

Intensive care nurses who said they watched Blanche spoon-feed banana pudding to Reid just days before he died.

And, of course, lots of odorless, tasteless Anti-Ant.

If not for the Rev. Dwight Moore’s strong constitution and will to live, the world may never have learned the extent of Blanche Taylor Moore’s crimes.

Fresh from their brief honeymoon in April 1989, the minister became violently ill a half-hour after eating a fast-food chicken sandwich Blanche had given him. He went to the emergency room with severe nausea and vomiting.

Three weeks later, he was near death at a Chapel Hill hospital, hooked to a ventilator, his liver, kidneys and heart failing. He wasn’t expected to live.

Doctors threw a Hail Mary: They ordered blood tests for herbicide poisoning, because he had used the chemicals before his illness.

The results revealed more arsenic than his doctors had ever seen in a living person - 100 times the normal amount.

The hospital alerted police, who interviewed him as he lay on what was supposed to be his deathbed.

Moore mentioned to police that Blanche’s former boyfriend, Raymond Reid, died in 1986 of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an immune system disorder with symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning.

That’s when investigators started to exhume bodies.

In the summer of 1989, workers unearthed five caskets from Alamance County cemeteries. Each contained the remains of someone close to Blanche.

Autopsies revealed a new cause of death - arsenic poisoning - for two of the five: Reid, whose arsenic level was 30 times higher than normal, and James Taylor, her first husband, whose 1973 death from an apparent heart attack was the result of an arsenic level 60 times higher than normal.

Two other bodies that were exhumed - those of her father, the Rev. Parker Kiser Sr., and her mother-in-law, Isla Taylor - had high levels of arsenic, but not high enough to kill them, the medical examiner said.

The body of Joseph Mitchell, a former co-worker of Blanche’s who died in 1985, also was exhumed. The autopsy didn’t reveal any unusual level of arsenic.

David Hedgecock, the State Bureau of Investigation agent whose investigation led to the exhumations, said the names of more than 30 people arose as possible arsenic victims.

“There was a good bit of hysteria going on,” Hedgecock said at the time. “It seemed like anyone that had a family member dead who at some point knew Blanche thought that Blanche had something to do with the death.”

On July 18, 1989, authorities arrested Blanche and held her without bail. She was charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Taylor and Reid and assault with a deadly weapon in the poisoning of Dwight Moore.

She hasn’t experienced a moment of freedom since.

Prosecutors had a problem. A big one. No one saw Blanche Taylor Moore poison anyone.

There was circumstantial evidence - and plenty of it - but nothing tangible.

That deeply concerned Forsyth County prosecutors, who had jurisdiction over Reid’s murder because he had died at what was then N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.

Help came in the form of a court ruling issued just days before the trial started. Judge William Freeman of Forsyth County Superior Court said prosecutors could discuss the arsenic poisonings of James Taylor, Dwight Moore and Kiser.

The decision laid the groundwork for the state’s case against Blanche: She secretly poured an odorless, colorless arsenic-based ant killer called Anti-Ant into food and drinks, then fed it to her victims.

Enter lead prosecutor Janet Branch - blonde, smartly dressed, 100 pounds soaking wet. This flamboyant, aggressive former labor lawyer described the victims’ suffering with such gruesome detail that she twice broke down in court.

“Raymond Reid lay in Baptist Hospital flat on his back, bed sores on his back, completely unable to move, tears in his eyes on the days that this woman who was killing him doesn’t come,” Branch told the jury, tears streaming down her face.

“He’s crying because his murderer isn’t coming to see him! Can you imagine anything more pitiful in this whole world? And he loves her with all his heart. … But she’s running around on him, and she’s sleeping with Dwight Moore, and she’s going to that hospital.”

The defense wanted a mistrial for her crying fits but didn’t get one.

But there was more to the trial than raw emotion. Branch and Rabil unleashed a torrent of witnesses - 53 in all - who, collectively, painted a picture of Blanche as a cunning, ruthless killer.

The jury found her guilty after six hours of deliberation and sentenced her to death after just four more.

“I don’t see how anybody could have sat in that courtroom, saw the evidence given, heard the defense and come up with anything different than we did,” a juror told the News & Record after sentencing Blanche to death.

“I don’t care if it was us 12, the next 12 or 112 people down the road, I think the decision would have been the same.”

Blanche never stood trial for the death of her first husband, Taylor, or for poisoning her second husband, Moore.

Officials in Alamance County dropped those charges soon after she was sentenced to death.

You can find a picture of her on the prison system’s website.

It is not the Blanche Taylor Moore we remember - big glasses, tailored outfits, perfectly permed hair.

It’s an elderly woman with silver hair. She is wearing a fuchsia-colored blouse over a white T-shirt, with small, tasteful earrings. Her smile reveals lines around her deep-set eyes, though not as many lines as you might expect at 82.

She has aged well, despite at least one recurrence of the cancer she first fought in the 1980s.

The website shows that Moore has had two “infractions” while at Women’s Prison - “misuse medicine” in 1996, and “disobey order” in 2008. The website offers no details about the circumstances.

Like all death row cases, Blanche’s attorneys filed numerous appeals, all unsuccessful.

One argued that Freeman, the judge in the murder trial, shouldn’t have let the jury hear allegations that she poisoned her first husband, Taylor, and attempted to poison her second husband, Moore.

Another claimed that Freeman improperly socialized with jurors, posing for pictures, sharing popcorn and birthday cake.

Taylor, her attorney, launched his most recent argument in 2010. He and attorneys for almost every other death row inmate in North Carolina asked that their sentences be converted to life in prison under the state’s 2009 Racial Justice Act. The law allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences based on statistical evidence of racism.

Gov. Pat McCrory repealed that act in 2013, ending any hope for such a move.

Rabil said the aftermath of Blanche’s trial, including the lengthy appeals process, has helped shape his belief that capital punishment should be abolished.

In November 1990, as Rabil sought to persuade jurors to sentence Blanche to death, he said Reid’s murder set “a new standard for cruelty in the history of this country.”

Blanche, he told them, deserved “the ultimate penalty.”

Now an assistant capital defender in Forsyth County, Rabil is no longer convinced.

He asked: “Have the endless rounds of appeals and hearings rehashing the gory details of the case achieved justice or provided closure to the victims and survivors?

“Isn’t the 25 years and more than $1 million spent litigating this case just a monument to another failed government program?”

___

Information from: News & Record, http://www.news-record.com

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