Reform Jewish Movement Calls on the Nation’s Governors to Declare a Moratorium on the Death Penalty
Commends Illinois Governor George Ryan for His Leadership, Asks Other Governors to Follow Suit
"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 crime. Do you have that level of certainty in every decision of your state's justice system? We encourage you (and every other Governor of a state that currently imposes the death penalty) to follow Governor Ryan's lead."
Contact: Jeff Mandell, (202) 387-2800
WASHINGTON, January 31, 2000 — In response to Illinois Governor George Ryan's announcement today that he is imposing a state-wide moratorium on the death penalty and appointing a commission to study the frequency with which inmates sentenced to death have later been found innocent, Judge David Davidson, Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, sent a letter to the Governor of every state that currently imposes the death penalty asking them to follow Governor Ryan's lead in declaring a moratorium on executions.
At its Biennial conference in December, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the synagogue arm of the Reform Movement, called for an immediate national moratorium on the death penalty. Earlier in the month, the Reform Movement, as part of the National Council of Synagogues, joined the United States Catholic Conference and the National Council of Catholic Bishops in announcing a joint effort to work for the abolishment of capital punishment.
The full text of the letter follows:
We are certain that you are aware of Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois and to appoint a commission to study the state's capital punishment system and the disturbing number of death row inmates who were convicted and sentenced to death only to be later exonerated. We commend Governor Ryan's actions and his leadership in 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. Do you have that level of certainty in every decision of your state's justice system? We encourage you — and every other Governor of a state that currently imposes the death penalty — to follow Governor Ryan's lead.
In Governor Ryan's 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. Join us in applauding Governor Ryan's courage. Please follow his example.
"Justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16: 20) the bible commands. Justice: primary, twice over, above any other consideration. Let us all work together toward that ultimate goal.
Judge David Davidson
Rabbi David Saperstein
Mark J. Pelavin
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.