Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Statement of Rabbi Eric Yoffie President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations Calling on the President of the United States to Declare a Moratorium on the Federal Death Penalty
Thursday, March 9, 2000
Washington, DC

Mr. President, my fellow religious leaders and I come together today to call on you to impose a moratorium on the federal death penalty. As you know, the organization I lead, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has long opposed the death penalty. Yet it is not our opposition to capital punishment that brings me here today. What compels me to speak is the age-old Jewish commandment: "Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof — Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue."

There is compelling evidence that the death penalty today is being administered unjustly.

For the 13 innocents recently released from Illinois' death row, and for however many other innocents may await execution across the nation, we must pursue justice. For those who have been victims of racial and class disparities in sentencing, we must pursue justice. For those who have been disadvantaged by a public defender system that is overburdened and understaffed, we must pursue justice.

Mr. President, our plea today is not to send the executioner home, but we pray that you will stay the executioner's hand until greater justice can be achieved.

Until we can provide every death-row candidate with competent, dedicated counsel, let us stay the executioner's hand. Until we eliminate discrimination in death penalty sentencing, let us stay the executioner's hand. Until the standard of justice that applies in the outer city of wealth and comfort is also applied to the inner city of poverty and despair, let us stay the executioner's hand. And most important, Mr. President: As long as we continue to sentence to death those later proved innocent, let us stay the executioner's hand.

When it comes to the death penalty, we cannot afford a system of justice that is inconsistent and arbitrary; we cannot afford to fall short of the absolute integrity that God demands of us in such matters. Nothing could be more of a nightmare and a miscarriage of justice than for the American people, through its government, to execute an innocent person.

Mr. President, we like all Americans have had our fill of senseless crime. And we know that capital punishment is overwhelmingly popular. But understandable rage and suffocating consensus do not make good public policy, especially when the chance of error is so great.

Mr. President, we urge you to rise above the cheap-shot politicians who pander to public wrath. We urge you by your example to rebuke the opportunistic demagogues who offer quick-fix solutions to the problems of crime, and are even prepared to accept wrongful executions. We urge you to speak out for justice — loud, proud, and unafraid.

Mr. President, we call on you to follow the lead of Illinois Governor George Ryan. Until justice and fairness in our criminal justice system are ensured, human decency and Biblical values require that we put an end to this grisly march of legalized death.


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.

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