Renowned Death Penalty Abolitionists You Should Know
Supporters of the death penalty would do well to learn some of the names of American and global humanitarians across the centuries who disagree on this vital issue.
Though I am the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” a group with thousands of members from across the world, I myself used to support the death penalty, as have others in our group. Then, I became a prison chaplain, and my eyes were opened to the horrors of capital punishment. Since that time, I began to learn about the countless prominent historical and contemporary figures who also have opposed the death penalty. I wish I had known of their positions sooner so that I might have seen the Light of abolition at a younger age. We all should know the calibre of the cross-section of human leaders that is united against the death penalty. This list is by no means comprehensive, nor are any of the individuals on it without foibles; yet, each one has served as a kind of leader for their nation and/or the human race in his or her own way. Collectively, they form a most formidable group who have devoted blood, sweat, tears and volumes of writing to help our species evolve morally, ethically and spiritually. May we all heed their call on the issue of state-sponsored murder.
As our group L’chaim is a Jewish group, allow us to start with some of the more well-known Jewish abolitionists. Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), when asked of his view on capital punishment, famously said “Death is not the answer.” He also said what has become our anthem in L’chaim:
“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.”
The lessons that Weisel learned from his walk with death during the Holocaust were echoed by famed Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber was among a cadre of leading Jewish intellectuals who tried to stop Israel from executing Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann (see the essay “Words from the Interfaith Wise” by Arthur Feinsod in From the Killing Fields of the Federal Government: Interfaith Essays on the Resumption of Executions). For Buber, the commandment “Thou Shalt not Kill” applied to the state just as much as it did to the individual. Buber added, “I do not accept the state’s right to take the life of any man” and that ‘‘as far as it depends on us, we should not kill, neither as individuals nor as a society.’ Buber also later said to Newsweek that “The death sentence has not diminished crime–on the contrary, all this exasperates men…Killing awakens killing.’” Perhaps the late great Jewish Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a similar idea in mind when she famously said, “If I were queen, there would be no death penalty.”
René Cassin, a Sephardic Jew who himself had been sentenced to death, no doubt considered this as well when he helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This included Article 3’s assertion that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person,” and Article 5’s stipulation that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Of course, the death penalty is anathema to both of these articles, as both Mr. Cassin and his fellow document author Eleanor Roosevelt – among others – well knew.
To round out our small sample of Jewish opinions, let us consider conclusions on this matter from another human being who has helped advance humanity: Albert Einstein. “I have reached the conviction,” he wrote, “that the abolition of the death penalty is desirable. Reasons: 1) Irreparability in the event of an error of justice, 2) Detrimental moral influence of the execution procedure on those who, whether directly or indirectly, have to do with the procedure.” Indeed, as we write this very post, another innocent man – our pen pal Leonard “Raheem” Taylor – is slated for state murder in Missouri tomorrow, Feb. 7, 2023. Consider Raheem alongside the 190 people listed in the database of wrongful convictions and other individuals likely wrongly executed in our nation, and Einstein’s “theory” is proven correct…time and again.
The inherent racism in the application of the death penalty, and the legacy of lynching that it perpetuates necessitates that we also consider the abolitionist voices of civil rights leaders. In the nineteenth century, as death-penalty proponents sought to bring back capital punishment to Michigan in 1881. Sojourner Truth fought against the death penalty, just as she had campaigned against slavery and the subjugation of women. Truth’s moral authority and fervent testimony before the state legislature successfully fought off those efforts. “I’ve heard that you are going to have hanging again in this state,” she said. “Where is the man or woman who can sanction such a thing as that? We are the makers of murderers if we do it.” Truth’s wisdom proved prophetic for civil rights leaders who followed her lead in the next century. In a November 1957 article in Ebony, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked “Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?” He responded, “I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included…. Capital punishment is against the better judgement of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.” Later, in his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” Dr. King preached a philosophy that had no room for capital retribution: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” And finally, this most impactful statement from Dr. King: “Make your way to death row and speak with the tragic victims of criminality. As they prepare to make their pathetic walk to the electric chair, their hopeless cry is that society will not forgive. Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.”
After Dr. King’s assassination, the words of his bereaved widow Coretta Scott King echo his spirit, and reverberate for us all. “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died as the victims of murder and assassination,” she wrote, “I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.” She also poignantly asked: “Can we expect a decent society if the state is allowed to kill its own people?” Dr. King’s daughter Bernice King stated the same position quite succinctly when she responded to a comment on Twitter that assumed any family member of a murder victim would support death. “Someone in my family has been murdered,” she wrote, and then added immediately: “Abolish the death penalty.”
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative continues this tradition today, along with many other civil and human rights activists. As Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” In the same book, Stevenson penned: “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is: ‘Do we deserve to kill?’” Stevenson also is rightfully praised for reminding humanity of the very relevant truth that “each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
Human rights leaders who are death penalty abolitionists are not limited to American shores. In India, Mahatma Gandhi powerfully completed the falsely interpreted Biblical notion about “an eye for an eye” when he said “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” One might imagine how Gandhi would view our proverbial blindness today in the USA. As Gandhi also stated: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Another Indian human rights hero, Mother Teresa, realized the same truth as Gandhi, and famously said: “What you do to these men on California’s Death Row, you do to God.” In nearby Pakistan, Adbul Ghaffar Khan not only marched with Gandhi, but also was one of the most well-known advocates for non-violence among modern day Muslims. As he wrote: “The Holy Prophet Mohammed taught us that a Muslim is a man who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures. Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men.”
His Holiness The Dalai Lama of Thailand also is in agreement on this point. “My overriding belief,” he has said, “is that it is always possible for criminals to improve and that by its very finality the death penalty contradicts this.” And on another occasion, he firmly stated: “I wholeheartedly support an appeal to those countries who at present employ the death penalty to employ an unconditional moratorium. We need to explain the importance of the practice of love and compassion for our own survival and to try to minimize those conditions which foster murderous tendencies.”
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress applauded his overseeing of the abolition of the death penalty at the start of his administration in 1995, saying, “never, never and never again must citizens of our country be subjected to the barbaric practice of capital punishment.” Mandela himself stated: “The death sentence is a barbaric act . . . It is a reflection of the animal instinct still in human beings.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa also emphasized that “the abolition of the death penalty is making us a civilized society. It shows we actually do mean business when we say we have reverence for life.” Tutu also said: “There is no justice in killing in the name of justice.”
In Russia, famed author Fyodor Dostoevsky, who himself was an execution survivor, wrote “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Similarly, he realized that “a society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” In his fictional work The Idiot, Dostoevsky wrote: “Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands.” Fellow Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy was more vivid in his position on the matter. “During my stay in Paris,” Tolstoy wrote, “the sight of an execution revealed to me the instability of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head part from the body and how they thumped separately into the box, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world had held it to be necessary, on whatever theory, I knew it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, nor is it progress, but it is my heart and I.”
Staying for the moment in Eastern Europe, let us reflect on the words of Polish author Halina Bortnowska, a professor of philosophy and theology as well as an anti-Communist fighter and a human rights activist. “Criminals are human beings, too,” writes Bornowska. “They continue to be human beings. No one has the power to dehumanize someone. We punish people, still they remain our neighbors. Our own dignity and conscience require moderate punishment – it cannot be cruel, it cannot be offensive to humanity – because it is wicked and always happens at the expense of the humanity of those who impose and execute the punishment.”
Turning our attention to the British Isles, consider the words of the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde: “One is absolutely sickened,” he wrote, “not by the crimes that the wicked have committed but by the punishments that the good have inflicted.” Or, George Bernard Shaw: “Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind. It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it.” Better yet, ponder the hard-learned lesson of Albert Pierrepoint, an English hangman who executed between 435 and 600 people in a 25-year career that ended in 1956. As he stated: “Capital punishment in my view achieved nothing except revenge.” Contemporary British icons such as billionaire Richard Branson have continued the charge toward global abolition. “The death penalty, writes Branson, “is broken beyond repair and plainly fails to deliver justice by every reasonable measure. It is marred by cruelty, waste, ineffectiveness, discrimination and an unacceptable risk of error.”
Fans of British literature also will want to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien – author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – himself was likely a death penalty abolitionist. Read his thoughts through the voice of Gandalf the Grey as he reprimands Frodo Baggins for believing that the Gollum’s deserved punishment: “‘Deserves death!,’ explained Gandalf, ‘I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.’”
Moving across the Channel to France, let us recall the prophetic words of some of the leading figures of the Age of Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued “No man should be put to death, even as an example, if he can be left to live without danger to society.” Note as well the abolitionist writings of François-Marie Arouet – Voltaire – Rousseau’s contemporary, who wrote sarcastically: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” Voltaire also wrote: “Let the punishments of criminals be useful. A hanged man is good for nothing; a man condemned to public works still serves the country, and is a living lesson.” And again, consider French philosphe Baron de Montesquieu’s well-known quip: “This punishment of death is the remedy, as it were, of a sick society.”
Post-Enlightenment France did not stop shedding light on this man-made darkness. Two centuries after Rosseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu, author and philosopher Albert Camus of France had the following epiphany:
“But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”
The tradition continues in France today, where less than a decade ago the former French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira notably concluded: “Capital punishment is a denial of human dignity.”
As our gaze shifts to Italy, we learn of Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, Marquis of Gualdrasco and Villareggio, an 18th century criminologist, jurist, philosopher, economist and politician, who is widely considered one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment. “The punishment of death,” wrote Beccaria, “is the war of a nation against a citizen whose destruction it judges to be necessary or useful.” From Italy, we can turn to the Vatican, where indeed the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has said time and again that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Rounding out our abridged list, let us return to the United States for other quotes from renowned abolitionists from across the political spectrum. Take Mr. Fred Rogers, a card-carrying Republican, who was known to have said that the death penalty “just sends a horribly wrong message to children” and asked “what are our children learning from us when we model that this is an appropriate way of responding to societal problems?’” Take, as well, President Jimmy Carter, an avowed Democrat, who wrote in an op-ed “[T]here has never been any evidence that the death penalty reduces capital crimes or that crimes increased when executions stopped. Tragic mistakes are prevalent.” Carter later added: “Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is extreme bias against the poor, minorities or those with diminished mental capacity. Although homicide victims are six times more likely to be black rather than white, 77 percent of death penalty cases involve white victims. Also, it is hard to imagine a rich white person going to the death chamber after being defended by expensive lawyers. This demonstrates a higher value placed on the lives of white Americans.” Also on the political Left was former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is on record saying: “A humane and generous concern for every individual, his health and his fulfilment, will do more to soothe the savage heart than the fear of state-inflicted death, which chiefly serves to remind us how close we remain to the jungle.” Politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Cori Bush, Ayanna Presley and Jamie Raskin – among many others – all have made similar statements in support of abolition. Many lawmakers now indeed echo US Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in his famous promise that “From this day forward, I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”
It should come as no surprise that many renowned Catholic Americans like Sister Helen Prejean have spoken out vociferously against the death penalty. “If we believe that murder is wrong,” Sister Helen has written, “and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.” Her famed book Dead Man Walking and its movie and opera adaptation have gone on to inspire the likes of such pop icons as Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon to become anti-death penalty activists. Other American celebrities such as Joan Baez, Steve Earle and Kim Kardashian have joined their ranks, as have sports icons such as former UNC Basketball coach the late Dean Smith, former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, and former LSU Basketball coach Dale Brown.
Among American intellectuals who are abolitionists, Noam Chomsky is a notable name on the Left. “The death penalty can be tolerated,” wrote Chomsky, “only by extreme statist reactionaries who demand a state that is so powerful that it has the right to kill.” Conservative intellectuals who lend their voices to abolition include George Will, Col. Oliver North, Richard Vigurie, Drew Johnson and Jay Sekulow. Others can be found on the website of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty
Countless medical professionals are forbidden from participating in executions on ethical grounds, including the members of American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association. One of these is Dr. Deepak Chopra, who wrote: “Under what possible moral scheme can a civilized country consider this anything but barbaric? Our prisons are called penitentiaries (from the root word ‘penance’) because over two hundred years ago it was felt that an enlightened society must move beyond Old Testament revenge for wrong-doing. Now we have slipped back across that moral boundary, and the saddest thing, in this boom time for building more prisons, locking away more non-violent criminals, and handing down maximum sentences, is that we have learned to condone cruelty almost as if it didn’t exist. As if it was a good thing.”
Finally, Americans who rationalize executions as part of the foundational bedrock of our nation would do well to consider the many Founding Fathers who opposed capital punishment. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Beccaria and other writers on crimes and punishments had satisfied the reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of crimes by death.” As Paul Jacob has shared, “I agree with Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote that he would support the death penalty only when the infallibility of human judgement had been demonstrated.” Benjamin Rush, in his 1792 piece “Punishing Murder by Death” unequivocally wrote that “The punishment of murder by death, is contrary to reason, and to the order and happiness of society…It lessens the horror of taking away human life, and thereby tends to multiply murders.” James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was one of several founding fathers who sought to reduce the number of executions, saying, “I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it.” For Benjamin Franklin, abolition also was very clearly the path forward. “The punishment of murder by death,” he wrote, “is contrary to reason, and to the order and happiness of society, and contrary to divine revelation. As historian John Bessler has concluded, “the Founding Fathers were deeply ambivalent about capital punishment…[T]hey embraced the principle of Montesquieu and Beccaria that any punishment that goes beyond what is ‘absolutely necessary’ is ‘tyrannical.’ In an era of maximum-security prisons and life-without-parole sentences, the death penalty can no longer be considered necessary.”
Many of the Founding Fathers, like many of the luminaries who have led America and the world in thought and progress in each generation since the Enlightenment, doubtless would support the idea of the United States joining the seventy percent of countries worldwide who now have abolished the death penalty.
They stand with us in our sacred mission to bring this to fruition, just as we stand in their shadow and on their shoulders in solidarity.
If you are with us, you are with them. If you are against us, you stand against them.
So, please ask yourself again – as I once did: where do you stand?
May it be for LIFE…L’CHAIM!
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