Statement of Mark J. Pelavin Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on Representative Jackson's Death Penalty Bill
Wednesday, April 5, 2000
Good afternoon. I am Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which serves as the public policy and social action office of the Reform Jewish movement.
I commend Representative Jackson and his colleagues in Congress for saying aloud what so many across this nation already know: our criminal justice system is broken. When the stakes are this high - with human life hanging in the balance - we must be doubly certain before imposing a death sentence. In Jewish tradition, to be doubly certain requires two unrelated eyewitnesses who separately provide identical accounts of the capital offense. Of every member of Congress I ask this question: Do you have that level of certainty in every decision of our criminal justice system?
In Representative Jackson's home state of Illinois, more inmates have been found innocent after being sentenced to death than have actually been executed. Illinois has learned of these mistaken convictions through the diligence and hard work of a well-funded public defender's office and through the tenacity of a highly-publicized university journalism class. How many more people would be cleared if other states had these mechanisms? How many currently go to the death chamber for crimes they did not commit?
In America today, there are too many death penalty cases where guilt is later cast in reasonable doubt. There are too many death penalty cases where questions remain - or even arise - after the execution has occurred. And there are too many death penalty cases where the understandable desire for punishment overshadows the impartial pursuit of justice. Until some of these problems are addressed, we call on you to a put a stop to executions in your state. Here, one mistake is too many.
The prophet Zechariah enjoins us: "See that justice is done." It is our solemn obligation not just to promote justice, but also to stand up and decry injustice when we witness it. We are, to be sure, opposed to the imposition of the death penalty, but we also believe that the system for administering capital punishment is seriously broken, to the disadvantage, too often, of poor and minority defendants who are unable to mount a defense which would result either in acquittal or in the imposition of a lesser sentence. The death penalty as it is currently practiced in the United States is not just, and it must be fixed.
"Justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16: 20) the bible commands. Justice: primary, twice over, above any other consideration. Our heritage teaches us that on matters of life, one mistake is too many.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing its 895 congregations across North America, whose membership includes 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the 1700 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.