The death penalty kills off – quite literally – any opportunity for restorative justice. To be sure, there are many reasons to oppose the blatant human rights violation that is capital punishment. This blog has addressed various ways in which the death penalty is an unmitigated abomination: it is racist; it perpetuates the Nazi legacy of lethal injection and the gas chamber; it constitutes psychological – and often physical – torture; it is erroneously justified by the fallacy of deterrence; it targets the mentally ill and is itself insane; it endangers us all by giving the government the power to kill those it deems “the worst of the worst;” it inevitably murders innocent human beings; it creates new victims while perpetuating the cycle of violence. For all these reasons, when reformers triage the broken criminal justice systems of this world, the death penalty continues to stand as the most lethal and dangerous threat to any so-called civilized attempts at social “correction.” And yet, there is more…
For decades, civilized nations ostensibly have strived to transform their penal systems from those governed by the retributive justice model of isolation, torture, dehumanization and execution – as Michel Foucault describes in his seminal work Discipline and Punish – to systems guided by principles of restorative justice. The Restorative Justice Exchange defines restorative justice as “a response to wrongdoing that prioritizes repairing harm and recognizes that maintaining positive relationships with others is a core human need. It seeks to address the root causes of crime, even to the point of transforming unjust systems and structures.” The three core elements of restorative justice are 1) encounter, 2) repair and 3) transformation between human beings who have caused harm and the individuals and/or communities they have harmed. Putting a perpetrator to death invariably destroys any opportunity for such restoration. As Vanshika Agarwal succinctly concludes: “the very nature of the death sentence goes against the theory of restorative justice, offering no scope for the rehabilitation of the offender.”
From a Jewish perspective, the death penalty irrevocably prevents the fulfillment of traditional aspects of teshuvah, or repentance. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg adroitly outlines in her critically acclaimed book On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) lays out five steps in his understanding of repentance. These include: 1) naming and owning harm; 2) starting to change/transformation; 3) restitution and accepting consequences; 4) apology; and 5) making different choices. It goes without saying that killing a perpetrator prevents the opportunity for the final step in this process. It is not surprising that, for a host of reasons, Rabbi Ruttenberg herself is a death penalty abolitionist. Maimonides undoubtedly also would have excoriated the modern-day manifestation of the death penalty. In one of his most famous statements on capital punishment, he concludes: “It is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” The epidemic of wrongful convictions in capital cases in the USA would certainly disqualify it in Maimonides’ eyes.
The most recent execution in this country, that of my pen pal Mike Tisius in Missouri on June 6th. 2023, vividly demonstrates how capital punishment is anathema to any efforts at restorative justice and teshuvah/repentance. Like countless other men and women condemned to die before him, Mike used his final statement to re-articulate the sincere apology that he had been expressing for years prior, writing:
“I am sorry it had to come to this in this way. I wish I could have made things right while I was still here. I really did try to become a better man. I really tried hard to give as much as I could to as many as I could. I tried to forgive others as I wish to be forgiven. And I pray that God will forgive those who condemn me. Just as He forgave those who condemned Him. I am sorry. And not because I am at the end. But because I truly am sorry.”
Multiple psychiatrists over the span of twenty years concluded that Mike understood the seriousness of his offense and showed empathy and remorse for the people he had hurt, particularly the families of the victims, Mr. Leon Egley and Mr. Jason Acton- may their memories be for abiding blessings and their neshamot/spirits for loving guides for us all. Mike engaged in the process of expiation through his art. He painted several murals within the Special Needs Unit (SNU) of the Potosi Correctional Center, where he was housed, and donated paintings to that institution, as well as to a domestic violence center, churches and service organizations across the country. Mike’s home “correctional” institution destroyed this unfolding process of restoration when it put him to death.
Lest one erroneously believe that Mike is an outlier, consider my penpal James “Jimi” Barber, the execution victim next in line for state murder in Alabama on June 20-21. Elizabeth Bruenig powerfully writes in the Atlantic about Jimi’s budding connection with the granddaughter of his victim, Mrs. Doroty Belle Crovatt “Dottie” Epps – may her memory be for a blessing and her neshama for a loving guide. Just as the two of them recently have begun the process of encounter, repair, transformation and restoration, Alabama viciously plans to tear from them this opportunity for healing by giving Jimi the veritable “Sophie’s Choice” of either the gas chamber or lethal injection as a form of final “correction.” I personally can attest to the sincerity of Jimi’s teshuvah/repentance, just as I can do so for countless incarcerated individuals for whom I provided spiritual care as a Jewish prison chaplain, as well as for dozens of now executed pen pals – including Mike Tisius.
The existential threat that capital punishment poses to restorative justice stands among the many reasons that the thousands of members of the group “L’chaim Jews Against the Death Penalty” have concluded that 21st-century Judaism and all of humanity must reject the death penalty. The words of Jewish human rights icon Elie Wiesel best reflect the stance of L’chaim. When asked about his feelings on capital punishment, Wiesel resolutely stated “Death is not the answer,” and made no exception, stating: “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.” There can be no restoration with this man-made angel of death. And so, for this reason as well, we fervently continue to chant…
“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