Cruel and Unusual Punishment? Not on Our Watch

By Rabbi Yair Robinson

Clayton Lockett went to his death knowing it was inevitable, an act of vengeance for the brutal murder of Stephanie Neiman in 1999.He had no final words before they filled his bloodstream with poison. Nothing to say about how they shot and buried Stephanie alive, nothing to say to her family, or his, or the media.

But he did speak. To alert the officials that he wasn’t unconscious. To writhe and groan in pain as the poison, rather than sending him off to a relatively painless death, one theoretically free of unnecessary cruelty. To cause the prison officials to lower the blinds from the viewing gallery so they couldn’t see his final moments.

There has been much ink spilled over the secrecy and lack of transparency involved in Clayton Lockett’s execution, over technical issues surrounding the drug cocktail used, over whether there is better technology “out there” that would allow us to maintain the canard of a painless, effortless death penalty that washes our hands clean.

These are good questions, not because they will lead us to a better execution methodology, but because it forces us to confront the reality of the death penalty. It is expensive. It is unjust. It runs contrary to our values as a civilized country, and as Jews.   As Charlie Arnowitz pointed out in his blog post, Oklahoma essentially tortured Lockett to death. True, the death penalty is present in Torah and the Talmud, but always as a tool of last resort, frequently disavowed or marginalized by the rabbis, with as many opportunities to commute or overturn the sentence as possible. The Reform Movement especially has opposed the death penalty for many years, and with good reason; while it may slake our thirst for vengeance, it does nothing to restore justice, fails to act as a deterrent or bring healing to a broken family.

Is our desire for retribution enough reason to risk cruel and inhuman torture? There are those, I’m sure, who feel that Lockett got what he deserved, and are quick to point out that his death was merciful compared to the suffering Neiman experienced. Without a doubt, his crime is beyond comprehension, but the horrific murder of a woman, and the sadistic behavior by the perpetrator, do not give us license to slide into brutality. And it especially doesn’t give us permission to hide or mislead the public about whether the punishment is cruel and unusual or not. We must be better than that.

Many states are considering death penalty limitations or abolitions, including Delaware. Lockett’s death provides an opportunity to ask tough questions and look at our choices in the execution of justice. Leviticus 19 compels us to not stand on the blood of our neighbor; may this be the catalyst for such change in our justice system.

Rabbi Yair Robinson is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE and a Brickner Fellow with the Religious Action Center.

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