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Reform Jewish Movement Welcomes Supreme Court Decision Banning Execution of Mentally Retarded

Pelavin: By striking down the abhorrent practice of executing those who are mentally retarded, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a modest measure of mercy today to a seriously flawed criminal justice system.

Contact:Alexis Rice or Michael Weiner

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2002 - In a 6-3 decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Reacting to today's decision, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released the following statement:

By striking down the abhorrent practice of executing those who are mentally retarded, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a modest measure of mercy today to a seriously flawed criminal justice system. The Reform Jewish Movement has long opposed capital punishment, both on moral principle and, increasingly, in recognition that the administration of the death penalty in contemporary America is patently unjust and fraught with error. The issue of executing of mentally retarded individuals operates at the intersection of these concerns, bringing moral values to bear on a capital punishment system in serious need of repair.

Today's decision could not come at a more appropriate time, as Americans continue to reevaluate a broken system. Recent weeks have witnessed the 100th and 101st exonerations of wrongfully convicted death row inmates in the modern death penalty era, the release of a landmark report in Illinois calling for dramatic reforms of capital punishment, a moratorium on executions in Maryland and congressional hearings examining the failures of the death penalty system. The Supreme Court recognized that the execution of the mentally retarded no longer meets our evolving community standard of just punishment. Although we welcome this decision, it is difficult to ignore the fact that three members of this court are prepared to sanction the ultimate penalty for individuals who are incapable of fully understanding their actions. We urge all Americans to take this moment to reflect on the fairness of a system in which innocent people are sentenced to death, in which people of color are punished disproportionately, and in which arbitrariness runs rampant.

Jewish tradition teaches us that fairness and mercy must be benchmarks of a just legal system. That is why our ancient rabbis made the use of capital punishment nearly impossible by the time of the Talmud, despite its sanction in the Torah. With this Talmudic principle in mind, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism joined with other religious groups in filing an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to ban the execution of mentally retarded individuals. We note with pride the citation of our brief in Justice John Paul Stevens' majority opinion, which observed that "representatives of widely diverse religious communities… 'share a conviction that the execution of persons with mental retardation cannot be morally justified.'"

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) , whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis .



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