Michael Zoosman

September 21: A Date for the Execution of the Innocent

Images: Top: Screenshot of Photo protesting Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis on Sept. 21, 2011 Source:  Bottom: One of the final statements of Anthony Sanchez, executed by Oklahoma on Sept. 21, 2023. Source: Death Penalty Action  No copyrights.

In a horrific synchronicity, September 21st has become a date that forever will be darkened in the United States by the state killing of innocents. On Sept. 21st, 2011, Georgia put to death Troy Davis, an innocent man whose case captured the attention of the world, including this cantor, who was a younger Jewish prison chaplain at the time. Twelve years later to the day, on Sept. 21, 2023, Oklahoma put to death this writer’s longtime pen pal Anthony Sanchez, who also proclaimed his innocence resolutely from his initial capture until the very moment of his killing. Anthony’s case for innocence is most compelling, and nearly 15,000 individuals agreed that it was enough at least to halt his killing to allow for further investigation of – among other things – twelve boxes of evidence that never had been opened by his initial lawyers. Oklahoma’s governor, like Georgia’s before him twelve years ago, disagreed. I myself shall go to my grave believing that both Troy Davis and Anthony Sanchez were innocent of their alleged crimes. 

Here are Troy Davis’ last words, uttered moments before his Sept. 21st execution: 

Well, first of all I’d like to address the [victim’s] family. I’d like to let you all know that despite the situation — I know all of you still are convinced that I’m the person that killed your father, your son and your brother, but I am innocent. The incident that happened that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am — sincerely. All that I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really will finally see the truth.

I ask to my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight.

For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all.

And here is a report of Anthony Sanchez’s Sept. 21st last words:

“Anthony Sanchez’s last words were, ‘I’m innocent. I didn’t kill nobody,’ witness and Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy said. Along with proclaiming his innocence, witnesses said Sanchez spoke about his former attorneys who he had trouble with. ‘He then disparaged his former attorneys and said they were the worst lawyers ever in the state of Oklahoma,’ Murphy said. Other witnesses reported Sanchez saying, ‘Sorry to whoever has them lawyers.’”

This reflects this last message that Anthony sent to me the morning of his execution:

 Image: Screenshot of text messages that Anthony Sanchez sent to the writer the morning of his Sept. 21st execution. No copyright. 

Anthony’s words from above: “Please know that I am innocent. Thank you for everything. / Thank you. Don’t ever give up fighting!” 

Anthony’s message reminded me of some of the final words that he said to his spiritual advisor the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood: “If I’m executed, let it be said of me, I died standing for my innocence rather than begging for clemency on my knees.”

I did try to reply again again via text to Anthony, however the message never got to him. The way the messaging app Securus informed me that Oklahoma had put Anthony to death was to write in a bright blood-red background: “This conversation has been blocked so no new messages can be sent or received.”

Image: Screenshot of text messages that writer sent to the writer the morning of his Sept. 21st execution. No copyright. 

Even for individuals who support the death penalty, there is rightfully no tolerance for the execution of an individual who is innocent of the alleged capital crime. The Death Penalty Information Center writes that, given the fallibility of human judgement, there has always been the danger that an execution could result in the killing of an innocent person. Indeed, since 1973, nearly 200 death-row prisoners have been exonerated of the charges related to the wrongful convictions that had put them on death row. Within this past month alone, New York exonerated and released Mr. Leonard Mack after 47 years of wrongful conviction and Oklahoma exonerated and released Mr. Glynn Simmons from death row after 48 years for a crime he did not commit. How many more innocent individuals must be released before society recognizes the fallibility of any justice system and stops the possibility of executing an innocent human being? 

Jewish tradition, to be sure, forbids the execution of someone where there is any level of doubt about guilt or fairness. It is for this very reason that Rabbinic tradition placed prodigious safeguards to ensure that no innocent person was put to death. Arguably the most famous comment on the subject comes from one of the most renowned Jewish sages, the Rambam, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204. Maimonides, as he is often called, was a Sephardic Jewish physician and philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. As he famously wrote of capital punishment in Sefer HaMitzvot, Prohibition 290:  “It is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” Maimonides’ charge for protection of the innocent calls to mind another famous Jewish aphorism, one that is echoed as well in other traditions: “Whoever destroys a life, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” – Talmud, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

The awful synchronicities of Sept. 21 do not end with these two executions. It so happens that the day also serves as International Day of Peace, a day “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.” The killing of innocents, like any killing of defenseless prisoners, does nothing to further the ideals of peace for which humanity strives; on the contrary, it only furthers the ideals of vengeance and killing, and serves only death and bloodlust.

And yet, there is hope, by way of yet another synchronicity in the Jewish calendar. Sept. 21 this year also was part of Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time for individual and collective teshuvhah/repentance for wrongdoings. Per Maimonides, the highest level of repentance occurs when the harming party (after sincerely apologizing and making restitution through restorative justice practices), is faced with the opportunity to commit the same sin again and does not do so. Until the United States of America recognizes that it continues to put to death the innocent through a broken “justice system,” apologizes for its mistakes, and abolishes the death penalty so that the killing of innocents becomes an impossibility, America’s collective teshuvah/repentance will continue to fall short, with lethal consequences. 

And so, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” join together from across the world to cry out this High Holiday season in chanting: G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be inscribed and sealed BaSeifer HaChaim – in the Book of LIFE!

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

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture 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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