Michael Zoosman

The Death Penalty is Psychological Torture.

Image: Screenshot of the journal entries of the “corrections” staff on Texas’ Death Watch, where condemned human beings facing imminent execution are observed to ensure they do not attempt suicide. These are notes from the final day of our penpal John Ramirez, on Yom Kippur, 5783 (Oct 5, 2022) No copyright. 

The death penalty is psychological torture. 

Most do not realize this fact. Indeed, I did not consider it myself, until I began my work with “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”  to correspond regularly with individuals counting down their months, weeks, days, hours and minutes to death. In a recent conversation with me, Sister Helen Prejean – author of Dead Man Walking – emphasized this point when she reflected on the many individuals for whom she has served as spiritual advisor in death chambers over the decades. Telling a human being the date and time on which she or he is to be put to death is a level of inhumanity and torture without comparison in this world. Albert Camus is another individual who witnessed this first-hand. As early as 1957, in his book Reflections on the Guillotine, he concluded: “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 international community has begun to acknowledge this truth in recent years. A 2012 United Nations press release detailed how Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez’s concluded that “the ‘death row phenomenon’ was a relatively new concept within the context of the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The phenomenon refers to a combination of circumstances that produces severe mental trauma and physical suffering among prisoners serving death sentences, including uncertainty and anxiety created by the threat of death and other circumstances surrounding execution, prolonged solitary confinement, poor prison conditions and lack of educational or recreational activities.”

Much indeed is reported – as it should be – about the reality of the “physical suffering,” as referenced above, that inevitably occurs with putting a human being to death. The “mental trauma” that always accompanies execution is considered much less often, but I would argue it is equally if not more horrific. I have witnessed individuals who otherwise were deemed fully sane and who had history of mental illness attempt suicide as they faced the prospect of their annihilation from this world. For this very reason, states like Texas have set up the barbaric system of  a continuously-monitored suicide watch for individuals on their aptly-named “Death Watch.” 

As I write this post now, Texas is putting my longtime Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Murphy through this psychological torture. The Lone Star State intends on killing Jedidiah on World Day Against the Death Penalty, which falls on October 10th this year – this upcoming Tuesday. Jedidiah at this very moment is enduring the agonizing wait for word to find out if the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has heeded the call of the civilized world and recommended him to the governor for clemency. As history often has demonstrated, appealing to the moral and ethical foundation of any office-seeking politician is a march of folly. And so, while Jedidiah and the civilized world hope for the best, we are prepared for the worst. If he is denied, there will be virtually no path left to stop the clock from ticking down to his final moment. Those like me who communicate regularly with Jedidiah experience this torture vicariously. Like Jedidiah, I too could not sleep last night, and went out into my sukkah to meditate on his plight. While fellow Jews across the world today, on this Hoshana Rabbah, declare “Hoshana” (“Save us!”), I do so with Jedidiah at the forefront of my mind and with the man-made Malakh HaMavet – Angel of Death – peering into my depths of soul. Like Jedidiah, I too count down the likely remaining hours in which we will be able to communicate. Like Jedidiah, I too face the monstrosity of knowing when our relationship in this world will end. Like Jedidiah, I wonder how there can be any “rejoicing in the Torah” during this upcoming Simchat Torah holiday in the wake of the reality of this senselessly cruel and unusual punishment that our society has created.

And as if on cue, just as I am about to publish this blog post, we have found out that after a day of torturous waiting, the Texas Pardons and Paroles Board has denied Jedidiah clemency, and the torture continues throughout Shabbat, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and now World Day Against the Death Penalty.

Some will argue that this psychological torture is merited and that we must inflict it as a society in order to carry out “justice.” We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” together with the more than 70% of nations that have abolished the death penalty – and ALL of civilized humanity – beg to differ. As we have learned all too well: the death penalty condemns the society that enacts it infinitely more than the individual it condemns to death.  It makes torturers of us all. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel knew this viscerally, and so he declared: “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.” 

If you agree, please take a stand and join the thousands of others who have signed their name to the petition that we have created for Jedidiah. May the killings END. 

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

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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