The Torah lists four ways to put a person to death. The sentence can be carried out by stoning, decapitation, strangulation and burning by placing molten lead down a criminal’s throat. Today, in America, the 32 states that still have a death penalty all use lethal injection as the primary method.
While said to be more humane than other methods, botched lethal injections have brought that method into question, and last month the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures and in particular, the use of the drug midazolam, which is
designed to make its recipient sleepy and relaxed.
The case is expected to be argued in April with a ruling to come by the end of June.
Meanwhile, the chief law enforcement officer in the United States and several governors, including Maryland’s former governor, Martin O’Malley, and Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Wolf, have come out in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty. A Florida court this week agreed to delay an execution pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking Feb. 17 at the National Press Club in Washington, called for a moratorium on the death penalty, but explained he was speaking for himself and not for the Department of Justice.
“I have not been shy in saying I am a person who is opposed to the use of the death penalty,” Holder said. “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong,” he said. But still, he said, there is “always the possibility that mistakes were made.”
A person can be released from jail if it is determined that lawyers, a jury or witnesses made mistakes, but “there is no ability to correct a mistake” after a person is put to death, Holder said.
The Talmud also concerns itself with mistakenly putting someone to death. It states that if one innocent person is put to death in seven years, that is a murderous or bloody court, said Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac. It also refers to the court as murderous or bloody if one innocent person is put to death in 70 years, he said.
The Torah mandates capital punishment for many more crimes besides murder — including adultery, homosexuality, idol worship, profaning the Sabbath and incest.
“But we don’t live according to Biblical law. We have an oral law tradition which has developed over millennia,” said Shamai Leibowitz, ritual director at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring.
While the Bible allows for the stoning to death of a guilty person, rabbis moved to take vengeance out of the punishment by excluding the general public’s participation, Leibowitz said. Also, the stoning house had to be erected on a hill away from the courthouse so the court would not appear to be murderous, he explained.
When it came to hanging, or strangulation, it is written in the Book of Deuteronomy that a person should not be hanged at sunrise and left there all day but rather should be hanged at sundown. “Since every human being has a soul in it,” the soul should not be desecrated by hanging all day, said Rabbi Herzel Kranz of Silver Spring Jewish Center.
In Judaism, criminal defendants cannot be convicted and punished based on their own admission. Those confessions “are excluded and carry no weight at all,” he said. To render a punishment, there must be two witnesses testifying that they saw the accused person commit the crime, Leibowitz said.
“While the main reason for this law was to prevent confessions being elicited by torture or other violent means, this was also a way to reduce significantly the frequency of executions,” he said.
After reviewing the many Talmudic writings on the subject, Leibowitz wrote in an email, “I believe it shows a ‘trajectory’ – a movement toward mitigating, reducing and finally eliminating capital punishment.”
During 2014, seven states executed a total of 35 prisoners, four fewer than the number executed in 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Maryland repealed the death penalty in 2013, and this year, O’Malley commuted the sentences of the four remaining death row inmates. Since 1923, the state has executed 85 men and no women, mostly by hanging.
In Virginia, where capital punishment is still the law, there are eight men on death row, which is the same number as were in 2014. The last execution in Virginia took place in 2013, said Lisa Kinney, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections.
In Pennsylvania, Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty is to remain in effect until he has reviewed a forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on capital punishment.
“This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in announcing his moratorium on the death penalty.
The Reform Action Center of Reform Judaism praised Wolf’s action, noting the movement has long been opposed to the death penalty because it believes in the sanctity of life.
“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,” according to the 1959 resolution.
But Wolf’s move was not universally praised. Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams has petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reject Wolf’s reprieve, calling it an unconstitutional takeover of powers that belong to the legislature, courts and pardons board.
Wolf’s reprieve only applies only to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed March 4.
It does not affect Richard Baumhammers, although he too is on death row. He has another level of appeals, said Caroline Roberto, an attorney who previously represented him.
He was convicted of killing five people and paralyzing a sixth person in a two-hour rampage on April 28, 2000, in Pittsburgh. Baumhammers was found guilty of killing Anita Gordon, his 63-year-old next-door neighbor, and then driving to Beth El Congregation, where Gordon had been a member, and firing into the windows of the building as well as spray-painting two red swastikas on the building. He also shattered the glass windows with gunfire at nearby Ahavath Achim Congregation in Carnegie.
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum is the spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation today. In a perfect legal system, he said, capital punishment would be acceptable, but “there is no perfect system,” Greenbaum said. Also, Greenbaum said, Jewish tradition decrees that punishment should come quickly. In today’s legal system, the death penalty is dragged out for years, he said.