On October 10th, which is World Day Against the Death Penalty, Texas plans to use the Nazi legacy that is lethal injection to put to death a Jewish man, Jedidiah Murphy. The thousands of members of the group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” beg for his life, together with all other condemned human beings. This unfolding abomination is the latest reminder – like the capital trial of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooter – that the death penalty is very much indeed a “Jewish issue.”
I am a former Jewish prison chaplain and Jedidiah has been my penpal in L’chaim for years. By the age of 13, when most Jewish boys become a bar mitzvah, Jedidiah already had been in and out of foster care and extracted by the state from his first adoptive home due to abuse. Abandoned, neglected, assaulted, shipped, removed and alone, he eventually developed a dissociative identity disorder (also known as “multiple personality disorder”), along with post-traumatic stress disorder. On October 4, 2000, he murdered 79-year-old Bertie Lee Harmon Cunningham (b. Dec. 31, 1919) – Zichrona Livracha, may her memory be for an everlasting blessing. Despite the fact that this horrific act occurred during one of his blackouts, Jedidiah has admitted his guilt and has demonstrated sincere contrition, including throughout my correspondence with him. All the above facts are outlined in detail at SaveJedidiahMurphy.org, the website established for Jedidiah, and our partners at Death Penalty Action have set up a petition asking that he be spared for all these reasons.
Let there be no doubt: traditional Jewish law allows for capital punishment, albeit with prodigious safeguards to ensure that no innocent human being ever is executed. Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) encapsulated this view when he famously wrote: “It is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” The current American epidemic of wrongful convictions in capital cases should be enough to show why the death penalty as administered in our country today is not admissible by any viable measure of rabbinic standards.
When it comes to those who are guilty, like Jedidiah Murphy, remaining rabbinic arguments supporting the death penalty center around the disproven belief that it was a deterrence. Modern meta-studies have concluded again and again, however, that when it comes to deterrence, there is no demonstrable link between the presence or absence of the death penalty and murder rates. For this reason alone, rabbinic arguments for the death penalty no longer apply in our world.
But there is more that the Jewish world must consider for Jedidiah, and for anyone, in the wake of the Holocaust…
Many of the members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” including this author, are direct descendants of Holocaust victims and know quite well that capital punishment is not the same as that incomparable horror. And yet, for many like me, the shadow of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to our firm rejection of the death penalty in all cases, even for the Tree of Life synagogue shooter. The most common form of execution used by the US federal government and states – including Texas – is lethal injection, which is itself a direct Nazi legacy. It was first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” That program was devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hitler. Use of lethal injection on any human being – including Jews like Jedidiah Murphy – is a slap in the face of descendents of Holocaust survivors. If this were not enough, across the USA, more and more states are building gas chambers, including one in Arizona that uses Zyklon B, the very same lethal gas used on our ancestors in Auschwitz. No Jewish argument about the death penalty in the 21st century can ignore these facts, against which the members of L’chaim! firmly chant “NEVER AGAIN to state-sponsored murder!”
Indeed, many Jewish leaders even vociferously protested against Israel’s 1962 execution of Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, These included, among others, Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, and theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, who called the execution a great “mistake,” Holocaust survivor and Nobel-prize winning author Nelly Sachs, too, voiced strident opposition to Eichmann’s execution.
Twentieth-century Jewish human rights icon Elie Wiesel best framed the stance of the members of L’chaim. When asked about his feelings on capital punishment, Wiesel resolutely stated “Death is not the answer in a civilized society.” Speaking about this in a 1988 interview, Wiesel made no exception: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory,” said Wiesel, “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 applied even for Eichmann, and it would certainly apply to Jedidiah Murphy.
Driven by Wiesel’s prophetic call, L’chaim members and their partners at Death Penalty Action ensure there is a vocal Jewish presence at every execution vigil in the USA. L’chaim members are pen pals with all imminently condemned Americans, like Jedidiah Murphy, letting them know that civilized humanity stands on the side of life. L’chaim members also make daily calls to all actively executing governors, sign petitions, draft op-eds like this one, deliver synagogue programs, engage in regular TV, radio and podcast interviews, and advocate vociferously against the increasing calls for a return to executions in Israel.
In the wake of the Holocaust and the unprecedented number of state killings of the 20th century, seventy percent of the nations of the world have recognized the inviolability of the human right of life and have abolished the death penalty. 21st-century Judaism, directly targeted by that unparalleled conflagration, must reflect this evolution and become a Tree of Life whose branches – like in L’chaim’s logo – extend as a model across the world, including to Jedidiah Murphy on World Day Against the Death Penalty…or any day.
From my experience as a chaplain working with condemned men and women counting down their final months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes, I can personally attest that there is no humane way to put a prisoner to death against his or her will. To do so is nothing less than psychological torture. For this, and for all the reasons outlined above, the death penalty reveals infinitely more about the society that enacts it than the human beings it condemns; indeed, it condemns us all.
Ghana realized this just this past week when it joined the ranks of abolitionist nations across our globe who will honor World Day Against the Death Penalty by never again putting to death a human being on that day…or any other day. May the USA, Israel, and all nations follow bimheirah v’yameinu – soon in our days.
L’chaim – to 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
Note: A version of this op-ed first appeared here in the Texas Jewish-Herald Voice on July 27, 2023.