OPEN LETTER FROM OHIO JEWISH CLERGY TO OHIO POLICY MAKERS
Dear Members of the Ohio Legislature & Governor,
WHY WE SUPPORT ENDING EXECUTIONS IN OHIO
Jewish tradition presents somewhat contradictory statements regarding the death penalty. Yet, evolving Rabbinic tradition made it virtually impossible for a person found guilty of a capital crime to be executed. Competing values frame the issue:
Sanctity of all human life
Importance (and difficulty) of discerning the truth
What is our position today?
The sanctity of human life is the governing principle of the Torah, vigorously extolled by our Talmudic Sages. “Whoever sheds the blood of a person, by a person shall his blood be shed (Genesis 9:6)” Exceptions are not to be made based on social status because every victim is a sacred person. In its initial expression, this was a very progressive attitude reflecting the sanctity of every human life.
While the Torah permits the death penalty, the Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, imposes severe limits on capital punishment even where the crime murder. Among them:
Circumstantial evidence is inadmissible.
A murderer must understand what he is about to do and the potential punishment, suggesting that a mental illness would make execution impossible.
Two eyewitnesses must provide corresponding testimony and must have forewarned the murderer that such an act is punishable by execution.
Judgment by a large Sanhedrin (rabbinical court) is required to afford the defendant every benefit of the doubt.
Following conviction, the witnesses themselves must initiate the execution.
Witnesses are held responsible not only for the death of the defendant but also for the souls of all his would-be progeny.
Tractate Sanhedrin suggests: “A court that executes a murderer once in 70 years is a bloody court.” It is evident that our Rabbis found the application of capital punishment abhorrent. Still, they worried that overturning the death penalty might be dangerous to society.
We note that the State of Israel follows the example of the Sages and does not impose the death penalty even on terrorist-murderers. The only ground for imposing capital punishment in Israel’s legal code is crimes against humanity (i.e. genocide) and Israel has conducted only one execution in its history to-date.
Today, even those supporting the death penalty recognize the extreme inequity in its application. We sadly observe that the ideal of “equal justice under law” is not a reality of the legal system in Ohio or in the United States.
Moreover, since 1973, at least 156 innocent people have been exonerated and released from death row – nine of them from Ohio. DNA evidence played a substantial role in only 20 of those cases.
We cannot avoid the question: how many innocent people have been executed in our name? Problems of coerced confessions, false witnesses, mishandled physical evidence and questionable testimony abound, compromising truth and justice. Even if more stringent rules of evidence were put in place, the possibility for error remains. The only safeguard against mistaken executions is no executions.
We are deeply sympathetic to the families of murder victims, yet we note that execution of the murderer does not bring closure to their tragedy. As rabbis and cantors, we are committed to doing our utmost to help those touched by violence and tragedy to survive the trauma inflicted on them. We will bring all our resources and skills to bear in an effort to promote healing and justice. At the same time, we recognize that the sanctity of life, once violated by a murder, is not enhanced by the death penalty. The sanctity of life, must be our society’s supreme value.
Therefore, the undersigned Rabbis, Cantors and congregations support all steps taken to reduce and eliminate executions in Ohio.