Preventing and punishing criminal conduct are among the primary obligations of government at all levels. But it is also the obligation of government to ensure that no one is unjustly accused, convicted or punished. New York State no longer has a state death penalty—in 2004, the NY Court of Appeals held that part of the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional and in 2007 the same court held that their previous ruling applied to the last remaining person on death row in New York State. Legislative attempts to reinstate the state death penalty have failed.
The United States Supreme Court’s decision in 1972’s Furman v. Georgia held that the death penalty violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Court also found that capital punishment violated the principle of equal protection, since executions were carried out mainly against the poor, African-Americans, and the uneducated. However, capital punishment for federal crimes was reinstated only four years later, in 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia.
The executions of individuals who commit their crimes as juveniles as well as those who are mentally retarded are practices that critics of our capital punishment system find particularly abhorrent. Fortunately, in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally retarded people violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In the 2007 Roper v Simmons case, the court ruled juvenile executions unconstitutional as well.
The death penalty has been abolished in most of Europe (48 out of 50 countries), Canada, Australia, and most other countries in the western world. As of August 2012, the following U.S. states have fully abolished the death penalty: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The District of Columbia has also abolished the death penalty, while Oregon has a moratorium in place.
Reform Jewish Values and Policy
In Deuteronomy 16:20, the Torah commands us, Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, “Justice, justice you shall pursue”, and the Jewish sages explained that the word tzedek (justice) is repeated to teach us that we must be just in our pursuit of justice, that our means must be as just as our ends. Since 1959, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) have formally opposed the death penalty. The CCAR has resolved that capital punishment “does not act as an effective deterrent to crime.”
In December 1999, at the 65th biennial convention, the URJ passed a resolution entitled Race and the United States Criminal Justice System, which among other things, committed the Reform Jewish Movement to continue its efforts in opposition to the death penalty and to determine whether the “disparate treatment of those sentenced to death is attributable to the race or ethnicity of the defendants or the victims and act to eliminate the disparities, where they exist.”
Biblical law mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses. These include a broad range of crimes from murder to kidnapping, adultery to incest, certain forms of rape, idolatrous worship and public incitement to apostasy, from disrespecting parents to desecrating the Sabbath. The Reform Movement, however, has followed rabbinic interpretations that effectively abolished the death penalty centuries ago. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases, for any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. If any perjury were to cause an execution, “the blood of the accused and his unborn offspring stain the perjurer forever.” The passage goes on to liken wrongful executions to Cain killing Abel, concluding 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.”
In July 2004, the Reform Jewish Movement joined an amicus curiae brief in the Roper v. Simmons case which was then heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. RJV was also very active in the coalition opposed to Governor Pataki’s attempt to revive the death penalty in New York. In October 2006, RJV signed on as an amici with other religious organizations against the death penalty, and in support of the defendant-appellant in this case. In 2007, the NYS Court of Appeals ruled in the case People of the State of New York, Respondent v. John Taylor, Defendant-Appellant. The Court held that abolition of the state death penalty applied to the defendant.
In 2006, the State Senate voted to reinstate the death penalty (S4918), while the State Assembly voted against it (A851). The Assembly held extensive hearings on this topic in 2004 and 2005, at which two members of the RJV Steering Committee provided testimony against the death penalty. The death penalty remains unconstitutional in New York State for crimes prosecuted by the State of New York, however the federal death penalty remains constitutional.