Dear Mrs Moreland

Lesley Moreland was an ordinary woman from Potter's Bar until the night her daughter Ruth was murdered. For her, the only way to come to terms with her loss was to face the guilty man. But her eventual peace of mind came from a most unlikely source: the letters of a condemned killer in Huntsville Penitentiary, Texas. Report by Rebecca Fowler. Portrait by Kalpesh Lathigra
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The Independent Culture
Memories of Ruth Moreland, who died aged 22, fill the family home in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Her picture hangs alone on the living room wall, her engaging and sensitive face about to break into a smile. She grins from family photographs on the mantelpiece, posing in the garden. A lock of her curly blond hair is clipped beside a picture of her as a bridesmaid at her sister's wedding.

When the police called at the Morelands' home six years ago, their comfortable, suburban world was shattered. Ruth had been brutally murdered, stabbed a hundred times by a man high on LSD. She had known her killer. He was a young man she had befriended and tried to help in the past. To her friends, Ruth's death was a shocking loss; to those who read the brief details of her death in reports of the Old Bailey trial, it was a senseless waste of a life.

Lesley Moreland, Ruth's mother, now 56, is a gentle woman with a quiet intelligence and much common sense. She sparkles now at the memory of her daughter, but for a long time after Ruth died all she could do was cry. "It went on for so long, it was frightening," she says. "I had no control. After a while you have to go out again, to Sainsbury's, into town, the library. But I never knew when I was going to burst into tears. On trains I'd think, don't cry, it'll embarrass people. Then I'd come up the lane from the station in the dark, and not make a sound. I became very good at crying silently."

Outwardly, Mrs Moreland still appears to be a model of middle-aged convention: she works too hard, worries about her weight, occasionally dyes her grey hair, is an expert knitter. But Ruth's death has taken her on an exceptional quest to find a way to forgive and to hold on to her conviction that there is humanity in everyone, even the most hardened criminal, even the murderer of her own daughter.

In two quite separate ways Lesley Moreland, a committed Quaker from her twenties, has thrown herself into the world of the criminal. First, she resolved to meet Ruth's killer; secondly, she began a correspondence with an American killer on Death Row.

She was determined to meet her daughter's murderer because she felt she could forgive only through understanding, by knowing about his life and circumstances. She also believed that she would achieve peace only by finding answers to questions about the last moments of her daughter's life.

At the trial she had seen Ruth's killer only fleetingly, as he came in and out of the cells; at one point, she had sat behind him the courtroom. But the man, whom Mrs Moreland prefers not to name, exercised his right not to give evidence, and never spoke. "I'm not saying anger wasn't present towards him, but there wasn't enough information to process. I couldn't begin to understand what had happened, because I didn't have any information," she explains.

"I wanted to try and understand what kind of a person he is, so I could see what had been going on in his life to lead to this. I had nothing to grapple with. And my gut feeling was, I wanted an explanation, even if it was incomplete and unsatisfactory. I felt he owed me that."

The meeting that she so desperately wanted was not easy to achieve. There are few precedents in Britain for mediation between the perpetrators of crime and their victims, and it was to be a frustrating battle that would take Mrs Moreland deep into the criminal justice system.

But the length of her campaign left the time and space to forge a quite different relationship with a man 3,000 miles away in Texas.

After reading in a Quaker magazine of the work of Lifelines, an organisation which has set up 3,000 contacts between British people and men on Death Row in the US, she contacted the founder, Jan Arriens. Within months of Ruth's death, Mrs Moreland had started what was to be a six-year friendship with Michael Richard, 37, a convicted murderer, who was languishing on Death Row awaiting lethal injection for shooting a 53-year-old nurse during a break-in at her house.

Richard's world was a small cell in Huntsville Penitentiary in Texas, one of the most notoriously bleak prisons in the US, where 56 men were executed last year. It could not have been more different from Lesley Moreland's three-bedroom house with its pretty garden. In her first letter, she told him of the murder of her daughter, and gave him the option of stopping the correspondence immediately.

But he replied, and they wrote to each other every month, sometimes exchanging gifts. It started with simple letters about his living conditions, and slowly developed into more intimate accounts of family life. Mrs Moreland sent him a guinea-fowl's feather from Kew Gardens; Richard sent her lavishly decorated handkerchiefs.

Gradually, they came to share the most painful events of each other's lives. Richard was becoming increasingly anxious about his pending retrial, his chance to get off Death Row. Through Mrs Moreland's letters he learnt about the impact of murder on the victim's family - the legacy for those left behind. At the Harris County Jail in Texas, where he spent two-and- a-half years awaiting retrial, he said: "I'd never even communicated with a white person before in my life, but now we're equal... and I realised through her when you do something it doesn't just affect one person, it's everybody around them. That never goes away."

For Mrs Moreland, who, in accordance with the guidelines issued by Lifelines, never asked Richard about details of his crime, it was confirmation that a killer's crime is only one part of him. "What I was trying to do was separate the act from the person," she says, "and hold on to the belief that, although someone did this dreadful thing, there's more to them than that." She cites Sister Helen Prejean, the American nun whose account of her work with inmates of Death Row in the US, where more than 3,000 prisoners are awaiting execution, has been adapted for the screen in the forthcoming film, Dead Man Walking. "She says that people are more than the worst thing they've ever done in their life, and that is what I believe."

Richard did find it hard to discuss his own crime with her, but she says they have never lied to each other. "It's not a one-way thing. It's what families go through: problems, worries. He nags me about my weight, he tells me not to work so hard. And he's told me that my letters have given him more insight into the impact of what he did in killing a woman." In his letters he does sometimes call himself her "loving son", which she says she does not mind.

Their correspondence and growing friendship, in tandem with Mrs Moreland's continuing campaign to set up a meeting with Ruth's killer, bewildered some of those closest to her. Her husband, an accountant, chose not to get involved, and her sister-in-law expressed misgivings: "She said you have to do what you want to, but it wouldn't be her way," says Mrs Moreland. "She and her husband are pro-capital punishment. And she was close to Ruth; they were very similar, generous to the point of stupidity ."

It seems likely that Ruth would have approved of the course her mother has taken. Mrs Moreland has a video of her daughter - who ran training courses for women returning to work - and in it Ruth displays a vivacious and easy charm. She starts to laugh over the relaxation exercises, collapses into a smile as she fluffs her lines, and is endlessly patient about reshooting. She was always good with people, according to her mother. Her easy-going manner and generous spirit drew people to her. "Everyone wanted to chew the fat with Ruth. She made people feel all right."

When Mrs Moreland went to Houston last June to act as a character witness at Richard's retrial, she met the family of Richard's victim, and approached the daughter of the woman he had killed. "I went over and said I was sorry about her mother's death, and that my giving evidence for Michael wasn't against them. They'd know from my evidence I would have some empathy. She was really nice; she said, `We as a family don't want the death penalty.'"

Richard lost his case at the retrial, and Mrs Moreland has heard from him only once since then, when he wrote at Christmas. He was finding it difficult to readjust to life on Death Row, with all hope now gone, and she is increasingly fearful for him. But she still writes, though she would never put him under any pressure to write back.

Lesley Moreland is quite clear in her own mind that her relationship with Richard was quite separate from her desire to meet Ruth's killer. But she is struck by the fact that both meetings, when they finally came, were so close to each other. Two months ago, after a tortured fight against prison bureaucracy, the Home Office finally gave special permission for her to go to the Midlands prison to meet her daughter's murderer.

Even the prison chaplain resisted. "We had a bit of a bust-up," she remembers. "He kept saying to me, `Our responsibility is to the prisoner,' and I said, `I hear you, but who is responsible for me, who will hear my needs?'"

Mrs Moreland travelled to the prison with a friend. Both she and the prisoner had agreed to a one-and-a-half-hour session, on the understanding that either of them could end it at any time. Despite Mrs Moreland's openness in discussing her loss and the way she has attempted to come to terms with it, she is uncomfortable talking about the meeting. The letters to Richard, which had started with so few expectations, flourished into a friendship. But the meeting with Ruth's killer, after such a long and painful wait, did not deliver her longed-for moment - when she would finally understand how her daughter had died, and in what circumstances anyone could possibly have been provoked to kill her.

"When he came in, I was struck by how large he was. I just thought Ruth never had a chance," she says. "I wanted to find out what kind of person he was, and how he'd got to know Ruth. I had never heard his name until Ruth was killed."

She discovered that the man, who already knew Ruth through her former boyfriend, had turned to her because she had been supportive and kind. At 5am on the night she died, he went to her home in Enfield, which she shared with friends. She was annoyed to be woken so early. He had been taking drugs, and when she told him to go he became angry. She threatened to call the police, and he attacked.

He had answered at least one of the questions that had haunted Lesley Moreland: he had made it clear that he had not gone to Ruth's home with any intention of attacking her. "That had really troubled me a lot, to think that someone would set out to harm my daughter."

Mrs Moreland has no intention of continuing her contact with the killer, and a sense of disappointment and sorrow was perhaps always inevitable. She went knowing that not all her questions would be answered, and that ultimately he would not be able to give her back the one thing she wanted above all else: her daughter Ruth.

But in her correspondence with Richard, a man who had also committed a violent and brutal crime, Mrs Moreland found the humanity that she is convinced is there in all of us.

"Michael helped me to hold on to my belief that there is good in all of us, even the man who killed my daughter," says Mrs Moreland. "Meeting him was a very significant event, and it's put some missing pieces in place. But it wasn't a magic wand. Ruth isn't here enjoying her life. We still miss her - a lot. And that is going to be something that we and everyone who knew Ruth will have to live with for the rest of our lives"