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Largest Jewish Organization Opposes Reinstating Death Penalty in Massachusetts

"Human decency and biblical values that stress the sanctity of life require that we put an end to this grisly march of legalized death."

BOSTON, March 22, 1999--Jerome H. Somers, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the congregational arm of Reform Judaism in North America, this afternoon called on the Massachusetts House of Representatives to defeat a bill to reimpose the death penalty in the Bay State.

Testifying on behalf of the UAHC before the Committee on Criminal Justice, Somers asked the House to "put an end to this grisly march of legalized death." He reminded the legislators that while imposing the death penalty may satisfy those who seek vengeance, it fails to fulfill the state's "mandate to pursue justice."

Mr. Somers' full statement follows:

My name is Jerome H. Somers, and I am the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations-the largest Jewish organization in America with over 870 Reform Jewish congregations. I am pleased to appear before you today on behalf of the entire UAHC and, specifically, the forty Reform Jewish congregations in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations has long opposed capital punishment. We believe that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods of dealing with crime. We have pledged ourselves to join with like-minded Americans, in trying to prevent crime by removal of its causes, and to foster modern methods of rehabilitation of the wrongdoer in the spirit of the Jewish tradition of teshuva which means repentance.

We believe, further, that the practice of capital punishment serves no practical purpose. Experience in several states and nations has demonstrated that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime. Moreover, we believe that this practice debases our entire penal system and brutalizes the human spirit.

Judaism's focus on the sanctity of life caused rabbis to impose major limitations on the use of capital punishment, making its implementation nearly impossible. By passing legislation that legalizes the death penalty in Massachusetts, do we ensure important limitations on its use? Will the death sentence in Massachusetts be nearly impossible as our religious tradition has mandated? The truth is that there is not, and will not, be proper limitations on the use of capital punishment.

In fact, we have seen that the use of capital punishment in the United States is so void of limitations that there have actually been innocent individuals sentenced to die. Indeed, since 1970, 77 people have been released from death row due to evidence of their innocence. In 1992, researchers Radelet and Bedau found 23 cases since 1900 where innocent people were actually executed. It was Justice William J. Brennan, who, in 1994 said, "Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent."

While the absence of limitations has caused innocent individuals to be sentenced to death, we are also deeply concerned about the significantly higher rate of death penalty convictions for minorities than for whites. A study that was recently conducted in Philadelphia confirms this. The study found that black defendants faced odds of receiving a death sentence that were 3.9 times higher than other similarly situated defendants.

In the most rational, ethical terms, capital punishment makes little sense. In order to prove a crime is wrong, capital punishment offers a crime in itself. The death penalty will in no way undo the crime. Nor has it been proven that it will deter another person from committing a similar crime. In fact, there is evidence to show that it does not. States with the death penalty actually have a higher murder rate than states without the death penalty. The average murder rate per 100,000 population in 1996 among states with the death penalty was 7.1, while the average murder rate among states that do not have the death penalty was about half that (3.6). Capital punishment, rather than deterring violence, actually adds to the violence of the original crime. Executions cheapen life. If we are ever to still the violence, we must take a lesson from our religious traditions and cherish life.

The families and friends of the victims of heinous crimes will, undoubtedly, need time for mourning and some may want to seek vengeance. However, the responsibility of the state is not to seek vengeance but to seek justice. Leviticus teaches us "Justice, Justice, you shall pursue." Our rabbis teach that the repetition of the word tzedek, justice, means our pursuit of justice must be carried out in a just manner. Capital punishment may fill a need for vengeance, but it does not fulfill our mandate to pursue justice.

In biblical times, capital punishment was a search for justice when justice seemed impossible to reach. As the rabbis did years ago when they considered the use of the death penalty, let us take the time to ask our selves some relevant questions. Is justice reached when we are taking the chance of killing an innocent person? Is justice reached when we are discriminating against minorities in our death sentences?

"See that justice is done", the prophet Zachariah proclaims.

If justice is not done by legalizing the death penalty-and it is not-human decency and biblical values that stress the sanctity of life require that we put an end to this grisly march of legalized death.

Thank you for this opportunity to share our views.



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