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Taking Aim at the Death Penalty

Taking Aim at the Death Penalty

Controversy has erupted in Utah since Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill into law reinstating the firing squad as a possible method of execution for death row prisoners. Lethal injection will remain the primary method of execution in the state, but the firing squad will be permitted when the proper drugs required for lethal injection are unobtainable. The news has shocked many, who find the method of firing squads to be an outdated and barbaric way of executing people. In fact, Governor Herbert himself has said that he finds firing squads to be “a little bit gruesome.”

Indeed, firing squads are gruesome, but so is the entire concept of the state executing its citizens, regardless of what they may have done. There is no moral justification for state-sanctioned executions—how can we teach that killing is wrong when we use killing as a form of punishment? The Reform Movement noted this in 1959 in a resolution opposing the death penalty: “we believe there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified, and that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods in dealing with crime.” We must create ways for all, even for those who have committed heinous crimes, to engage in the processes of repentance and forgiveness.

Not only is capital punishment immoral, but it is also unequally applied. Race has been, and continues to be, a significant factor in capital cases. A 2014 study showed that jurors in Washington State are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. Additionally, in Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. And finally, in 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both. The Torah teaches us that everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and thus all people must receive equal treatment, regardless of the color of their skin. The notion of equal treatment is all the more important in our justice system, where the future of people’s lives is at stake.

Racial disparities in capital cases is cause enough for concern, but the number of exonerations shows other serious flaws in this system. Since 1973, 151 people have been exonerated from death row, most recently Debra Milke from Arizona who was exonerated on March 23, 25 years after her conviction. The average number of years between being sentenced to death and exoneration is currently 11.2 years. As human beings who have flaws, we must acknowledge that a judicial system that is administered by human beings is also flawed. .

Though Biblical law mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses ranging from murder to adultery to idol worship and even disrespecting one’s parents, rabbinic interpretations made applying the death penalty nearly impossible. Thus, in Judaism, the practice was effectively abolished centuries ago. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 stresses the sanctity of human life noting that “it is for this reason that God created only one human in the beginning, a token that he who destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed all humankind; whereas he who preserves one life, it is as though he preserved all humanity.”

Today, the death penalty remains legal in 32 states, though 8 of these states currently have executions on hold. As Jews and as active citizens, we must continue to work to abolish the death penalty—whether by lethal injection, firing squad or other methods, because we know that the taking of any life is immoral.

For more information on the RAC’s work on criminal justice reform and the death penalty, check out our website.