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No! The Death Penalty is Morally Bankrupt

On today’s New York Times op-ed page, David Dow writes a very interesting but ultimately morally flawed article on the death penalty. In short, he suggests: Instead of focusing on the issue of whether or not someone convicted of the death penalty is innocent or not, “Abolotionalists… ought to focus on the far more pervasive problem: that the machinery of death in America is lawless, and in carrying out death sentences, we violate our legal principles nearly all of the time.”

Dow might be right that the bureaucratic machinery of American jurisprudence makes the death penalty a precarious punishment at best, but I would go a step further: The bottom line is that the death penalty only provokes more violence on top of violence. When one human being kills another, it shows that he/she is morally bankrupt; when a state sanctions the killing of another human being, it shows that humanity is morally bankrupt. (For more on the immorality of the death penalty see Sister Helen Prejan’s writings.


The rabbis of the Mishnah (Makot 1:10) debate both sides of the issue, with Rabbis Akiva and Tarfon arguing that they would never have allowed anyone to be killed under Jewish law. On the other hand, Rabban Gamiliel suggests that had they done so, they would only have increased the murder rate in Israel.

Rabban Gamilel is statistically wrong. According to Roger Hood, “Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. The most recent survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 2002, concluded: “. . . it is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.”(from “The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective,” Oxford, Clarendon Press, third edition, 2002, p. 230) You can find statistics on the death penalty here.

The death penalty is nothing more and nothing less than a pathetic and morally bankrupt legal mechanism for people to play out their most animalistic impulses.

Comments read comments(14)
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marvin kristein

posted June 17, 2006 at 9:48 am

Most discussions of the death penalty miss the point. People who kill other people are psychopaths or otherwise anti-social. The death penalty cannot prevent crime; history suggests that there is no way to prevent crime that has been found by any society. Most killers start young. The society needs fewer violent people. It is a waste of social resources to keep these killers alive, once one is certain of guilt. The laws against executing insane killers and young killers is, therefore, mistaken. The fact that prisons are a growth industry measures the waste.

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posted June 17, 2006 at 4:31 pm

thank you for you see prays god!!!

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Stan Felsenberg

posted June 19, 2006 at 1:27 am

I was the M.E. in September 1990 and was called out to pronounce 2 children ages 14 and 15 dead. They had been shotin the head by a man who had robbed the store where the boy age 15 was employed. He showed them no mercy. By chance 4 years later, I was talking to the Deputy Commissioner of Corrections at a lodge meeting and was informed that the state had not had an execution for 35 years and had never done a lethal injection. They were in need of someone to assist in the execution. I asked who they were executing and when I heard the name of the man who was involved in the 2 childrens deaths, I said that I would be glad to assist. I felt no remorse in helping to carry out the sentence meted out by the court. The entire procedure was carried out with the murderer going to sleep in 2 minutes as in an operation.

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Rabbi Eliyahu Stern

posted June 19, 2006 at 3:56 am

Stan, This isnt about remorse or guilt. Its about creating a certain kind of society. When we kill another human being what does that say about ourselves, who we are, and what we value. When we kill, we we end up being responsive instead of procative, we let the worst of society dictate and determine our behavior. In some sense we become the very thing that we morally detest. What makes murder so disgusting is not the conditions surrounding it but the very act iself. While I fully believe that out of self-defense one should have the ability to stop someone at all costs, still other than that situation murder in any form is a sin thatmakes humans into animals.

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Lorenzo Medina

posted June 20, 2006 at 8:04 am

I was convicted of a crime I did not commit. I stood before a judge and was pronounced sentance of five years in prison. I can only imagine being sentanced to the death penalty and being inocent. But I do know injustice occurs.

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Thelma Hopkins

posted June 20, 2006 at 6:56 pm


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posted June 21, 2006 at 1:09 pm

BS”D With respect, Torah requires the death penalty for certain actions, mainly those involving murder. There are provisions for ameliorating this judgement for unintentional murder. To deem a Mitzvo morally bankrupt is not something that a rabbi can do and stilll be credible as a rabbi (one who upholds Torah and is responsible for pasing it on from generation to generation). The moral bankruptcy of Nationally instituted death penalties, apart from Torah, is obvious. But it whould not be confused with the Toah absolute which is the origin of all Western morality itself. It is moral to put a murderer to death. It is moral to spare the life of an unintentional murderer. There is no legal loophole between the two where contemporary governments spend all their time and effort – making money under the guise of law and executing the poor and exhonerating the wealthy regardless of the crime.

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Marian Neudel

posted June 21, 2006 at 5:23 pm

What concerns me most about the debate over the death penalty is the repeated assertion that it is something we do for the families of murder victims, to help them reach “closure” and to assuage their grief. Even if the death penalty were actually effective for that purpose, we cannot take the risk of executing an innocent person as a form of psychotherapy for the family of the victim. Maybe I’m the wrong person to talk about this, since I simply can’t understand how executing a killer would make me feel any better about losing someone I loved. Perhaps I’m a tone-deaf person at a concert. But we also know that I’m not alone–that some actual family members of murder victims do oppose the death penalty. In any case, the whole point of putting the trial and punishment of murderers in the hands of the state is to transcend the ethic of blood feud, not merely make it more efficient.

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Stan Felsenberg

posted June 22, 2006 at 10:36 pm

It was not I that sentenced John Thanos to the death penalty but a jury of his peers. I merely helped the state carry out the penalty. It was also I who witnessed the two young people that he killed with gunshot wounds to their heads. The father of the young boy became an alcoholic as a result of his 15 year old son. He then went around to schools to lecture against crime and drug addiction. I was invited to join him at the schools and agreed to do so but was never asked. It was a much more merciful death than his victims experienced.

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Dorothy Hanna

posted June 22, 2006 at 11:13 pm

My sister, and mother, were murdered by a man. He blugeoned them w/a hammer, afterwhich, he sexually abused their bodies. It was devastating to my family, but not to my faith in the great mercy of my Father, in heaven. G-D. I am not Jewish. I’m opposed to the death penalty. I have faith, that our Father, is capable of saving the soul of this murderer. I pray, my Father, touch his heart, and mind, and soul. Open his eyes to what he is doing, and change his ways to doing good. This man, also has young children. For their sakes, and to the glory of my Father, I choose to forgive, and let not the roots of bitterness take hold my heart, and conscience. I choose mercy. I thank my Father, for letting my heart remain unhardened, and for keeping my eyes open. I choose life.

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posted June 23, 2006 at 12:50 am

I believe that the Torah clearly defines that an eye for an eye. A death for a death. Whether Hashem meant this to be interpreted this way, it seems pretty clear to me. I, do not always believe in the death penalty for several reasons. A) the accused murderer, though rather rare, may not have actually committed the crime; b) Who are we to decide who should be killed and who should live the rest of their days torturing themselves with guilt over what they did; c)Hashem will punish those that go unpunished on this Earth, and this I strongly believe. And last, I know a 51 year old man, who is psychotic and has been on medications for years. He killed his mother when he was 17 or 18 and would have killed his father if he were there. He is a brilliant man, has a good heart, and is on very strong doses of antipsychotic medication. He was angry at his parents for many things, one of which was having him institutionalized and drugged when it wasn’t warranted. I am not making excuses for him. But, I know him personally, went through some therapy groups with him and as soon as he stopped the meds and realized what he had done, all he could say was, “I am damned to hell forever”. He was in such pain and has been in and out of hospitals ever since. But does come in when he is out. He should not have stopped the meds so soon. But, had he not been put on meds to begin with by his parents, this man could’ve been the next Einstein. He has a conscience and is in agony everyday he is alive. He has tried to kill himself several times but not enough to really work. I believe what he did was horrendous, but he is not a sociopath, psychopath, or person who deserves to be killed by the judicial system. Though today he wishes he chose that instead of a mental institution. How would our G-d judge him? He is living hell on Earth. Is an atheist but brought up Christian and my heart cries for him when I think about him. So as far as the death penalty is concerned, there are those that truly couldn’t care less about murdering people, yes, they shouldn’t be with us. But there are those who have killed under the influence of alcohol, drugs, accidentally, etc. and they suffer more than I can even imagine. That is their punishment. Which may explain why Jews don’t believe in hell. We live it everyday. With faith.

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David Heller

posted June 26, 2006 at 12:50 am

So, Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis could not be executed in any kind of framework of morality? The death penalty is entirely valid in principle, including in Jewish law. But it must be used judiciously, and with proper safeguards. The argument might be made that some current uses of the dealth penalty lack certain safeguards for due process and fairness. But that in *no way* rules out the justness of the dealth penalty for crimes that warrant it. Forget deterrence if you think the death penalty does not deter crimes. Justice must still be served even after a murderer shows remorse, repents, and is rehabilitated. For certain crimes and circumstances, the death penalty is appropriate justice.

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Edward Yablonsky

posted July 1, 2006 at 7:40 am

R Stern: the death penalty has long vintage and is valid for principle’s sake. I have been a victim of violent crime,and know of peolple,pathogens,who practice evil acts for its own sake in their misplaced martyrdoms of death.The Israelites stoned to death Achan for concealing gold bars of sacred treasure and violating holy corbanos.Adultery similarly. Were they wrong and why? How can we deal with intractable and pathological doers of evil? If society were too gentle and they would be free and kill again,or if any should so do,would we not bear responsibility of unspaeakable crimes.SaD to say there are such people and they seem to be proliferating,though they’ve always been around committing pogroms and the like with no sense of sin.They are the candidates themselves for execution. I was not sorry for Adolf Eichmann and his unspeakable crimes against Jewry,or for men of that mindset.Intellectuals who can statistically calculate and cause death. The Mengeles. It makes you want to vomit. They must suffer compensatory death.Measure for Measure. I respect the peacelovers and good people and the moral dilemma is a tightrope.What can we do ? What is the answer for dealing with degenrated murderers?

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Stan Felsenberg

posted July 13, 2006 at 10:18 pm

I forgot to mention that John Thanos mentioned to me in the death chamber that it was cruel and unusual for his family to keep appealing his death sentence. I asked why and was told by the condemned man that if they keep appealing, I will run out of cigarettes to smoke. Were these the words of a sane individual?? Stanley Felsenberg

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