The former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court was convinced to oppose the death penalty.
This was more than 15 years ago and resulted from the efforts I and others carried out to educate people about why the death penalty was problematic, ineffective and should be abolished.
He became a staunch opponent because he realized that the justice system is imperfect and that there was too much of a chance that an innocent man or woman could be executed.
If that were to happen, there would be no redress to the damage that had been done and, essentially, the responsibility for the death and the injustice would fall upon society as a whole.
Eighteen hundred years ago, rabbis in the land of Israel taught as follows:
“A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, ‘Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.’ Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked, ‘They would also multiply murderers in Israel.’”
The views of the great 20th century rabbinical scholar, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, were recorded in the Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume II:
“In practice, … these (death) punishments were almost never invoked, and existed mainly as a deterrent and to indicate the seriousness of the sins for which they were prescribed.
“The rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to actually invoke these penalties … the system of judicial punishments could become brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere of the highest morality and piety.
“When these standards declined among the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin … voluntarily abolished this system of penalties.”
Often, people say that the reason why the death penalty should be maintained is that it acts as a deterrent.
In the 1990s, there were several “contiguous states studies” that were done in which the rate of murder in one state with the death penalty was compared to that of a contiguous state that lacked the death penalty.
The studies found no evidence to support the claim that the death penalty was an effective deterrent.
There were also studies done that seemed to indicate that, in the majority of cases due to the extensive legal fees incurred by the state, it actually costs more to execute a prisoner than it does to imprison that person for their entire life.
By the way, Israel allows the death penalty only in the case of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and treason.
In its history, the death penalty was carried out only once and that was against the Nazi Adolf Eichmann who was charged with crimes against the Jewish people during the Holocaust and crimes against humanity for his planning of the murder of more than 250,000 Roma (Gypsies).
Finally, there is the issue of racial inequity.
Studies in various states have found racial bias in sentencing, both in terms of the race of the perpetrator and the race of the victim.
This is still a major factor in capital punishment sentencing, as people convicted of murdering a white victim are many times more likely to get sentenced to death than people convicted of killing African Americans or Latinos.
This is reflected in public attitudes toward the death penalty.
Recently, in a Good Faith Media article, Zach Dawes Jr. reported on a Pew Research Center study that found “only 21% believe ‘there are adequate safeguards to ensure that no innocent person will be put to death,’ while only 35% say ‘the death penalty deters people from committing serious crimes.’”
“Similarly, 56% feel ‘Black people are more likely than white people to be sentenced to the death penalty for committing similar crimes’ and 78% affirm that ‘there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death,’” he noted.
I realize that to do away with the death penalty, or to have a moratorium on it, an enormous amount of education will need to be done concerning the items mentioned above.
As one who once founded a local chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, I am hopeful that this societal flaw can be corrected.
Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021. Guttman is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.