Leading up to my first day at the RAC, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the issues I wanted to work on. When our issue selection day finally came, I was thrilled to have the civil rights issue area in my portfolio. I had written my senior thesis about voting rights and been struggling with the criminal justice system ever since my binge-watching of The Wire. However, I never expected to spend so much time and energy engaging with the question of the death penalty. That same day, two half-brothers with mental disabilities in North Carolina, one of whom was on death row and the other of whom was serving a life sentence, were exonerated after over 30 years in prison. I was shocked and outraged. I could not even begin to imagine what it must be like to spend more than three decades in prison, waiting to be executed for a crime you did not commit. I soon found that this story is not uncommon. In fact, since 1973, over 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row, and even more people have been executed despite serious doubts that they are innocent. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School studied 86 exonerations and found that the most common reason behind wrongful convictions were eyewitness error and government misconduct by both the police and the prosecution.
Growing up as a Reform Jew in a liberal, socially active environment in Southern California, I always felt that capital punishment and the death penalty were morally wrong and never the right response to crime. Then, as a Reform Jew in the liberal, socially active environment of Boston University, I was faced with a moral dilemma.
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. Read more…
Last night, the state of Oklahoma effectively tortured one of its prisoners to death, after weeks of legal back-and-forth between the state’s courts about the legality of the execution. Clayton Lockett’s execution was halted after it was clear that the lethal injection procedure was botched, but he suffered significantly and ultimately died as a result of the botched procedure.
The repeal bill now heads to the state Senate, where passage is somewhat less certain, and then to Governor Maggie Hassan, who has pledged to sign it. Still, its passage out of the state House is significant. The New Hampshire House, with 400 members, is the largest state legislative chamber in the country and is famously unruly. This crucial bill nonetheless passed with a strong bipartisan majority. Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton), whose father was murdered in 1988, spearheaded passage of the bill, powerfully stating, “If we let those who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs.”
Should the bill pass the state Senate, New Hampshire would become the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, and the seventh to do so in the last several years. Much of this momentum comes from an increasing awareness across the ideological spectrum of the problems with the death penalty. Advocates have long pushed for repeal in the Granite State, whose famous motto, “Live Free or Die,” might not appropriately frame this particular debate. Still, given the important political status of New Hampshire, this debate has the potential to reverberate far beyond this corner of New England. While the debate over the death penalty is primarily a state matter, we should all be concerned about how this debate plays out in each state.
Reform Jews are staunch opponents of the death penalty. The rabbis of the Talmud established a series of legal requirements surrounding the death penalty so intentionally complex and difficult to satisfy as to make carrying out this ultimate punishment virtually impossible. Reform Jews have more formally opposed capital punishment since 1959, “believing that, 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… in the spirit of the Jewish tradition of tshuva (repentance).”
Repeal of the death penalty is a crucial social justice issue—and we hope that our friends in New Hampshire continue to advocate for a less vengeful and more just society.
Purim, on the one hand, is an easy holiday to love. There are costumes, hamentashen, a fun story and songs; we are obligated to have a good time. On the other hand, Purim is also controversial—and one such area worth highlighting is the role of capital punishment in the Purim narrative. Since the era of rabbinic Judaism, capital punishment has been practically impossible under Jewish law, and Reform Jews have long formally opposed the death penalty, “believing that, there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified.” But on Purim, we come across the death penalty several times as we read the Megillah.
The death penalty is back in the news with increasing frequency —and there is, in fact, a reason. See if you can piece this together:
- In Ohio, it took Dennis B. McGuire 25 excruciatingly painful minutes, from the time he was injected with fatal drugs to the time he was declared dead. The state used a new drug combination in its execution of Mr. McGuire, and received court approval to proceed despite defense attorneys asking for a delay, “in fear of the unused drug causing ‘air hunger,’ inflicting ‘terror and agony’ upon their client.”
- In Virginia, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would mandate death by electrocution in many cases, while Missouri and Wyoming have flirted with reintroducing the firing squad.
- The Supreme Court issued a last-minute, temporary stay of the execution of a Missouri inmate, Herbert Smulls, in the hours between President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday evening and the man’s scheduled execution at 12:01 Wednesday morning, following the state’s refusal to disclose where they obtained a lethal-injection drug.
- The first four executions of 2014 are being carried out by Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Texas, respectively. Each is using a different lethal injection procedure.
Today the five Eisendrath Legislative Assistants say goodbye after an amazing year representing the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. We have worked on nearly 70 different legislative issues, represented the RAC in countless coalitions, seen some bills signed into law and others tragically defeated, said goodbye to one Congress and welcomed the next. All in all it has been an incredible year.