Mme Mariame Toure Sylla, z’l (of blessed memory), was a beloved 59 year old 2nd and 3rd grade teacher at the elementary school where my daughter just began kindergarten two weeks ago. Mme Sylla went missing this past July and after an exhaustive month-long search, the community’s worst fears were realized when her remains were discovered and it became apparent that she had been abducted during a walk in a local park – and brutally murdered. The suspect, a 33 year old Caucasian man who did not appear to know her and for whom there still seems to be no known motive for this inconceivable horror, has been apprehended and faces charges of first-degree murder here in Maryland.
I did not have the privilege of knowing Mme Sylla in life, but I got a sense of her prodigious and everlasting legacy when I attended her funeral this past Friday at Diyanet Center of America, the local mosque where she often prayed. Among the hundreds gathered were Mme Sylla’s older sister Fati Toure, visiting from the Ivory Coast, the family’s country of origin. I had heard about Fati Toure’s profound Muslim faith and public forgiveness of her sister’s alleged murderer, but it was only then that I saw and heard her in person. I felt awed by her presence and gravitas in a moment whose difficulty for her I cannot begin to comprehend as she spoke so powerfully and lovingly to the masses gathered for the funeral prayer on the steps of the mosque after the Friday Jummah prayer.
As I heard Fati speak about her baby sister Mme Sylla, I could not help but consider the countless souls I have known over the years as a Jewish prison chaplain and now as co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Penalty.” I recalled the many family members of murder victims I have met, both those who support the death penalty and those who oppose it. I thought of the individuals who have been convicted of murder and executed whom I have known – from those who have been repentant of their crimes to those who never acknowledged them, as well as those falsely accused. I reflected on my own transformation from someone who supported capital punishment to someone vehemently opposed to it.
I also pondered how some countries leave the decision about death for the perpetrator in the hands of the immediate family members of the murder victim, giving them the power to decide between life and death. The Jewish world is very familiar with the idea of “who shall live and who shall die.” It is a verse that is stated explicitly in the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the most well-known piyuttim (liturgical poems) of the Jewish High Holiday liturgy. The verse is recited as part of the B’rosh HaShanah paragraph, declaring: “On Rosh HaShanah [the Jewish New Year] it is written, and on Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] it is sealed.” The writing and the sealing refer to Sefer HaChayim – the Book of Life – traditionally believed to be crafted by the hands of Hashem (the Divine) and of each human being. One of the verses immediately to follow explicitly references execution, stating “mi vas’kilah” indicating those who will die “by stoning.” This is a heavy reminder that traditional Judaism did indeed leave a place for the death penalty, albeit with prodigious rabbinic safeguards that made it nearly impossible to carry out. I take comfort that many modern-day Jews join the thousands of members of L’chaim in the realization that 21st-century Judaism Should Reject the Death Penalty.
In the wake of the Holocaust, twentieth-century Jewish human rights icon Elie Wiesel himself said of capital punishment that “Death is not the answer.” For this red-line, Wiesel made no exception, famously stating the following: “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.” This includes via any means, including lethal injection (which itself is a direct Nazi legacy), the gas chamber (including Zyklon B, as used in Auschwitz and now proposed in Arizona), or any other means. In addition, the death penalty is demonstrated not to be a deterrent, is racist in its application, is always psychological– and often physical – torture, is a fundamental a human rights violation, and leads to the deaths of innocents.
And yet, despite all of these rational arguments, the emotional reaction to murder is palpable and the desire for revenge is often visceral when that horror hits so close to home. I experienced such feelings myself in the wake of the murder of Mme Sylla, who might have taught my own daughter in two years. The feeling was reminiscent of my initial reaction to hearing about a terrorist attack in Israel earlier this year that killed a young man who grew up on the same street as me in the town where I was raised in West Hartford, CT. I also likened it to my response to the murder of 16yo Laura Szendrei, of blessed memory, the young Jewish girl to whose deathbed I was called as a cantor in Vancouver, BC after she was randomly attacked by a 17yo assailant in a local park in 2010. In all these cases, I would be lying if I did not say that a part of me did not feel a moment of bloodlust. Although these feelings quickly passed, they served as a very powerful reminder to me of why none should be judged for how they feel in their time of grief. As a hospital chaplain, I regularly counsel mourners that they should feel permission to experience the full gamut of human emotion while grieving, including rage, and – particularly in the case of murder – even the desire for vengeance. If I myself were to lose a loved one to murder, I could very well find myself desiring — and perhaps even advocating for — the death of my loved one’s killer. Any civilized society has a responsibility to protect all such mourners, while also upholding the most basic human rights upon which this world stands. Fundamental to these, of course, is the right to life itself. The seventy percent of nations in the world that have abolished the death penalty have realized just this.
Hearing Fati Toure’s public call for forgiveness reminded me as well of how my friend Sarah Gregory forgave my pen pal James Barber for his murder of her beloved grandmother Dorothy Epps, of blessed memory. Sarah became pen pals with James in recent years and hoped her forgiveness of him would help convince Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama to spare him the death penalty. Alas, it did not. James was put to death despite Sarah’s protests on July 21, 2023 – just before Mme Sylla went missing. In that case, as in every capital case, execution killed any possibility of restorative justice. As I reflected upon the state killing of James that so retraumatized Sarah, I felt relief for Fati Toure that Maryland abolished the death penalty the year I moved there in 2013. The option of state killing appropriately is off the table for Marylanders as the state now begins the process of – hopefully – restorative justice for the individual accused of the murder of Fati’s beloved sister.
I listened to Fati Toure’s eulogy and wisdom on Friday, which was the day before the Jewish world began the current season of Selichot/Forgiveness leading up to the High Holidays. Fati Toure, like Sarah Gregory and the hundreds of murder victim family members in Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing, epitomize the spirit of the Selichot season for me. Murder victim family member Bill Pellke, z’l, the founder of Journey of Hope and someone I was blessed to know all too briefly before his passing, articulated this spirit best when he said famously: “The answer is love and compassion for all of humanity! You can not have love and compassion for all of humanity and want to see anybody put into the death chamber and their life taken from them. It is impossible!” May this be a message that all humanity – myself included – can hold in our hearts this Selichot and High Holiday season.
May the beloved memory of Mme Mariame Toure Sylla be an everlasting blessing.
May her abiding neshama/spirit be a loving guide for us all. May her beloved family – including her son Aziz and sister Fati Toure – be comforted among all the mourners of the world.
May the killings END.
L’shanah Tovah Umtukah,
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM
Board Certified Chaplain – Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”
Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action