Michael Zoosman

Common Misconceptions About Death Penalty Abolitionists

Screenshot of a tweet by Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.  King was advocating on Twitter for the life of a condemned man when someone responded to her that if her family member had been murdered, she would think differently. Her response: “Someone in my family has been murdered. Abolish the death penalty.” 
No copyright.
Screenshot of a tweet by Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King was advocating on Twitter for the life of a condemned man when someone responded to her that if her family member had been murdered, she would think differently. Her response: “Someone in my family has been murdered. Abolish the death penalty.” No copyright.

We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” – like countless other death penalty abolitionist groups – regularly encounter a full gamut of myths and stereotypes about our efforts to put an end to capital punishment in our world. We have compiled a list here of seven of the most common misconceptions that we see on a regular basis and offer our responses. This list is neither comprehensive, nor ranked in any particular order of severity. We pray it will help to open and change hearts and minds about who we are and the nature of our cause.

Misconception #1: That we are not aware of the original capital crimes and do not remember/care about the victims of capital crimes.

Anyone who attends the online and in-person execution vigils that are held regularly by Death Penalty Action will note that we begin each and every vigil with a chanted prayer and visual memorial of the original victims involved in the case that has led our society to the execution chamber. Execution vigils by our friends at the Catholic Mobilizing Network offer the same. We pray that the memories of our fellow human beings whose lives were so violently taken will forever be inspirations and blessings to all who knew them. We pray that their abiding spirits will be loving guides for us all. And we pray that we shall end the American Cycle of Violence and Killing that we continue to perpetuate with the state-sponsored murder scheduled to be carried out.

Misconception #2: That we do not care about murder victims’ families.

Pro-death advocates often make a version of this statement. In truth, one of our many role models in L’chaim was Bill Pelke, z’l (of blessed memory), the founder of Journey of Hope – From Violence to Healing. Like others in Journey of Hope, Bill himself was the family member of a murder victim. He advocated for his grandmother’s killer’s death sentence to be reduced to a term of incarceration. He was happy when she was ultimately paroled after serving decades in the general prison population. Bill became a leading death penalty abolitionist, and more than that, was known globally for his powerful example of the healing power of forgiveness. Bill is well-known for his sage wisdom and voice of experience that “the answer is love and compassion for all of humanity.” 

We are also inspired regularly by others on the board of our parent organization, Death Penalty Action, who themselves are murder victim family members. These include Rev. Sharon Risher, whose family members were murdered in the 2015 Charleston, SC shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. In her NY Times op-ed entitled “I wish the jury had not sentenced my family’s killer to death,” Rev. Risher details her views on the subject most eloquently. Many other similar testimonies abound from murder victim family members who are against the death penalty. 

Perhaps one of the most powerful and succinct examples of the same sentiment is the tweet featured in the picture above by Bernice King, the daughter of famed death penalty abolitionist – and murder victim – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. Bernice King was advocating on Twitter for the life of a condemned man when someone responded to her that if her family member had been murdered, she would think differently. Her response: “Someone in my family has been murdered. Abolish the death penalty.” 

Indeed, many of our members in L’chaim – like myself – are scions of Holocaust survivors. We have lost many of our family members in that horrific mass murder. In light of that nightmare and the scepter of state-sponsored murder, we ourselves choose to stand with Holocaust survivors such as Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (1928-2016). As we have written elsewhere in this blog, Wiesel famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” He also said: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.” 

Finally, many individuals in our group like myself have given ample thought into putting ourselves in the position of the victim, as much as possible. We have included in our ethical wills specific stipulations about not wanting the state to kill anyone who has been arrested and charged with our deaths. 

Misconception #3: That we are all “liberals.” 

This accusation is an attempt at dismissal, in the hope of ending a conversation about this issue before it begins. However, the existence and rapidly growing popularity of the reputed organization Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty disproves this myth. Many of our members in L’chaim indeed do not identify as liberal, but rather are united on the idea that the government should not have the power to kill those it incarcerates. 

Misconception #4: That we are in love with condemned murderers and that we want to see their release from prison.

Sister Helen Prejean, one of the most well-known proponents of the death-penalty abolition movement in America and perhaps the world, herself has been falsely accused of being in love with Matthew Poncelet, the condemned man to whom she ministered as retold in her famous book Dead Man Walking. We hear similar tropes regularly in relation to the condemned men and women for whose lives we advocate on American Rows of Death. We can say with confidence and without equivocation that this has not been our experience with fellow activists dedicated to this domestic human rights issue.

Similarly, unless it is a case of wrongful conviction (which is ~4% of death row cases), we do not advocate that the individual facing execution be released from prison. Rather, our hope is that the scepter of death will be removed from the equation so that other forms of restorative justice practices can take root.  

Misconception #5: That we are pro-murder and not pro-justice.

This could not be farther from the truth. Indeed, we are against the taking of a human life – period. We hold by Article #3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” This means we are against killing in every case, whether murder by an individual or murder by the state of someone it incarcerates.

When it comes to the pursuit of justice, we in fact are emboldened by the well-known phrase from our tradition: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16: 20). This verse is our anthem as we strive for a world built upon restorative justice practices. We recognize that the idea of deterrence is a proven fallacy and that we now have the means to keep ourselves fully safe from those deemed a danger to themselves and others. Our responsibility and challenge as a civilized society is how to do so while balancing the most basic human rights of all

Misconception #6: That we are fanatics.

There are some who believe that anyone who opposes the death penalty is a fanatic who will use any means at their disposal to get their point across. The reality is that ours is a peaceful movement. We never would use violence or killing to make the point of trying to end the American Cycle of Violence and Killing. We are reminded of how Tennessee’s Death Row banned our death penalty abolitionist book. Members of the peace-loving Interfaith Council of the Wabash Valley like myself contributed various essays to this book, which was entitled From the Killing Fields of the Federal Government. The prison ruled that our “[m]aterial that could advocate, facilitate or otherwise present a risk of lawlessness, violence, anarchy or rebellion against government authority, prison staff and/or other inmates.” We respectfully disagree.

Similarly, we encounter those who believe that our group protests and vigils are filled with people who are paid to attend (where do we sign up?), and that these protests lead to riots. We have yet to meet anyone who fits this description, and I have yet to have experienced any death penalty protest that has led to a riot in my years of being an active member of this peaceful fight for life.

By extension, some accuse us of opposing the government on any issue. I myself am a full-time employee of the US government, which I serve as a federal hospital chaplain. I hold my government – and employer – in great respect on many fronts. I indeed am a living counterexample to this belief.

Misconception #7: That we have our priorities out of order, and that there are more important battles.

Some question why we place our efforts in the abolition of the death penalty when there is so much else to do in the world, and so many worthy causes for which to fight. Why invest so much energy in abolishing the death penalty? 

As we ask in “Why Abolition of the Death Penalty Matters,” why is humanity worth saving at all if we are only going to continue killing ourselves? Moreover, how can we fix other problems if we cannot stop the intentional taking of human life? 

From the perspective of the United States as a nation, how can we purport to know what is best for our world when we cannot even abide by what is arguably the most fundamental concept of civilized humanity – the inviolability of human life? If we in the United States wish to have any credibility at all on the global stage when it comes to attempting to police the world or advocating for human rights anywhere on Earth, then we must end the hypocrisy of the violation of the most basic of those human rights in our land: state-sponsored murder. We cannot criticize human rights violations in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere on our planet when we are guilty of the same and when we keep their company in allowing the penalty of death. This is a precept that is accepted by 70% of the nations of our world who have abolished the death penalty. We have no business in international affairs until we can live up to this standard and clean up this abomination that festers in our own backyard. Period. 

Last but not least, when one considers the epidemic of wrongful convictions and executions that plague our nation, one is hard pressed to argue against the importance of the stopping of executions as the only absolutely certain way of preventing the execution of innocents. The hundreds of death row exonerees and their family members who form the organization Witness to Innocence will attest to the reality that the death penalty carries the inherent risk of executing an innocent person. For this reason, we entitled our post on wrongful conviction and executions: “Saving America’s Soul: Step 1 – Abolition!”  

In conclusion, as we speak of “false convictions,” we indeed recognize that there are many other false accusations about death penalty abolitionists. We can only hope that our responses to these seven misconceptions above will open the door for a more thoughtful analysis of our position moving forward as we continue to peacefully chant our mantra:

“L’chaim – to Life!”

Cantor Michael Zoosman, MSM,

Board Certified Chaplain, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Board Member, Death Penalty Action

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC) and received his cantorial ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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