“Death penalty repeal bill fails.” That was roughly the headline in the Delaware News Journal the morning of January 29 after a long, powerful, and exhausting debate the day before. There was finality to that headline, as if the issue arose in a day and vanished into the night. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I am a relative newcomer to the work of repealing the death penalty in the First State. Congregants and activists throughout Delaware, including my congregants Connie Kreshtool and Sonia Sloan, have been fighting the good fight longer than many of us have been alive. But for over two years I have been engaged with the Delaware Repeal Project. Much of my work has been rallying the Jewish community to the cause, getting rabbis and congregations on board, twice testifying before the state legislature, speaking with the Governor and partnering with brother and sister clergy from other faith traditions: the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, the Catholics and more.
The death penalty has captured more headlines as of late. We have become increasingly aware of how unjust the death penalty is. As more scrutiny is placed on the race of most people sentenced to die (mostly black males), as doctors refuse to administer the drugs used for lethal injection, as drug manufacturers refuse to provide those drugs, as accidents refute the notion that there is a ‘humane’ way to execute a human being and as increasing numbers of individuals sentenced to die are exonerated or have their sentences commuted due either to mishandling of evidence, coerced confessions, lack of effective legal defense or constitutional violations, it has become increasingly clear to American society that the death penalty is a failed system of justice.
In the Torah, and the Rabbinic interpretations that follow, execution is a matter of God’s will. It is to be done only in the most extreme cases, with every opportunity given to give a lesser sentence, and the idea of executing as frequently as once or twice in a generation is seen as “bloodthirsty.” How would the rabbis of old or the Prophets of the Bible see our own execution rate, the highest in the Western World? It serves neither as a salve for the victims’ families nor as a deterrent to violent crime, but rather makes us all complicit in the execution of individuals, stripping them of their most fundamental right - humanity.
Prior to January of this year, twice a death penalty repeal bill had passed the state Senate, and twice it had gotten stuck in the House Judiciary Committee. But early that week in late January, we got the call that there would be a House floor vote on the issue. Many of us from all faith traditions raced down to show our support, packing the House chambers. Press conferences were held. Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights activist and a native of Delaware, as well as Rep. Sean Lynn of Dover, the chief sponsor of the legislation, spoke from the House floor with passion and conviction about the need to do away with the death penalty once and for all. Nevertheless, the vote failed.
For the papers, that sounded like the end. It was not. The State Supreme Court, mindful of how Delaware’s death penalty law mirrors the law in Florida, where the State Supreme Court recently ruled many of the death penalty sentences procedurally unconstitutional, has suspended convictions and executions until further notice. Delaware Repeal, along with committed leaders and volunteers throughout the state, are coming to Dover for “Moral Mondays” every week to put pressure on the legislature to bring up the issue again. The governor, Jack Markell, himself a Jew, has said that he will sign the bill to repeal once it reaches his desk. The end is coming for the death penalty in the First State; it’s only a matter of time.
Yair Robinson, a former Brickner rabbinic fellow, is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Delaware.