Michael Zoosman

The Insanity of the Death Penalty

Caption: This quote is ascribed to Albert Einstein, himself a Jewish death penalty abolitionist.  No copyright. Source: 

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a death warrant for Duane Owen, a former child sex abuse victim who himself was convicted of child rape and murder. We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” respectfully submit that this development reflects the inherent insanity of the death penalty itself.

Mr. Owen was scheduled die by lethal injection in Florida on June 15th before the governor temporarily halted the impending state murder in order to allow three psychiatrists to determine if Mr. Owen was in fact insane, and therefore ineligible for execution. Mr. Owen has lived for decades with serious documented mental illnesses including schizophrenia. It is not surprising that these three mental health professionals – sponsored as they were by a state seeking Mr. Owen’s death – deemed him to be sane and put his execution back on track. 

As the objective researchers at the Death Penalty Information Center have reported, there is no categorical ban on the execution of people with mental illness. The US government itself had no problem at all transferring Lisa Montgomery from the psychiatric unit to which she had been committed at a prison hospital in Texas directly to the death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. This occurred as recently as December of 2020, when Ms. Montgomery became the last American woman to be executed. A great many other severely mentally ill human beings have been execution victims across the United States.

And yet, regardless of what one concludes about Duane Owens’ current mental state, and whether it merits clemency, there can be no doubt that his killing glaringly represents at least one way in which the death penalty directly fits a popular definition of insanity. Claudine Clark of the French Coalition Against the Death Penalty, deftly highlighted this point in her scathing Times of Israel blog post. She reminds us that Mr. Owen was himself a child sexual abuse victim and that the governor signed his death warrant just days after he had signed into law a bill calling for the death penalty for perpetrators of the very same kind of sexual abuse against children in Florida. 

Duane Owen was sent to death row at the age of 23. He was born to alcoholic parents, and lost his mother to cancer and his father to suicide by the time he was just 9 years old. This young boy then was sent to an orphanage where he was sexually and physically abused. Specifically, Duane was forced to have sex with a 35-year-old childcare director, who was supposed to protect him. The sexual trauma that Duane experienced as a child left an indelible mental, physical and spiritual impact that led him to a life of crime. This culminated in the heinous rapes and murders of fourteen-year-old Karen Slattery and mother-of-two Georgianna Worden – may their memories be for everlasting blessings, and may no blood be shed in their names.

Governor DeSantis chose to respond to this chronology of horrors by killing Mr. Owen. How does this constitute “insanity?” Albert Einstein, himself a renowned Jewish death penalty abolitionist, offered the following definition of this term: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” In signing the death warrant for Duane Owen, Governor DeSantis is perpetuating the very same cycle of violence and killing that he claims to hope to end through the wanton political pursuit of barbaric laws allowing for state-sanctioned murder. Einstein’s definition of insanity directly applies to the governor’s action of committing an additional murder and thereby expecting the murdering to stop. As Holly Near framed it so powerfully: “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong?” By another measure, as we consider the inherent insanity of capital punishment, death penalty abolitionist Mr. Fred Rogers might be quick to remind us of the age-old adage that all children learn from a very young age: “two wrongs do not make a right.” 

To be sure, Einstein’s theory – along with Near’s rhetorical question – fits the death penalty in every single case: responding to criminal violence with more state violence once an individual already is safely incarcerated, and hoping that this response will stop future violence, is nothing less than insane. The death penalty demonstrably has failed to deter crime. Instead, it continues to create new victims, including both the executed, their loved ones, and the executioners forced to carry out the killings. We at L’chaim are keenly aware of this reality and oppose every execution without exception. This includes the case of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter, where we also have issued a formal plea for life for the Tree of Life. Together with our partners at Death Penalty Action, we fight against each execution in the USA, where we are pen pals with ALL in line for state-murder here – both the innocent and the guilty. We also advocate vociferously against the increasing calls for executions in Israel.

Our opposition to state murder is grounded in the fact that, like one of our co-founders, many of us at L’chaim are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, such as Elie Wiesel, who famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.”  Wiesel also said this, which is our anthem at 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.” We follow in the footsteps of renowned Jewish theologian Martin Buber, and other Jewish human rights luminaries who opposed the execution of the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann. We are keenly aware that the USA continues to carry on the Nazi legacy that is lethal injection, and to erect more and more gas chambers, including one that uses Zyklon B, the lethal gas of Auschwitz infamy. All of this continues, despite the fact that we know that the death penalty is racist in its application and that it has been disproven time and again as a deterrence to crime. Against all these developments, we chant “NEVER AGAIN to state-sponsored murder!” 

Our Jewish tradition teaches us the following: “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.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) If the state of Florida professes to be “pro-life,” then the planned, state-sponsored killing of any defenseless human being should be anathema, especially taking the life of former child sex abuse victim Duane Owen. May the killings –  and the insanity – 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

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on May 26th, 2023.

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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