The Death Penalty

Is there ever justice in capital punishment?

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Contemporary Concerns

Rabbinic fears about misapplication of the death penalty are being realized today as governments execute numerous people every year without fair trials. In Nigeria, hundreds who currently sit on death row did not have fair trials and around 80 have been denied the right to an appeal. India has been notoriously arbitrary and inconsistent with its death penalty cases in investigation, trial, sentencing, and appeal stages.

No court system in the world transcends human fallibility, even our own. The U.S. has released 120 death row inmates on grounds of innocence since 1975, leaving to our imagination how many innocent Americans have been erroneously executed.

Moreover, capital punishment is often fraught with discrimination against marginalized populations. Nearly half of those executed last year in Saudi Arabia were foreign nationals from the Global South, many of whom lacked defense lawyers and could not follow their court proceedings in Arabic. The death penalty is also sometimes used to silence political opposition. In Chad, a judge sentenced the former president and 11 opposition leaders to death in order to preserve "constitutional order, territorial integrity and security."

Because human justice systems are, at best, imperfect, death sentences do not belong in our courtrooms. We should support the international movement to abolish the death penalty, beginning by protesting capital punishment in the U.S, which in 2008, had the fourth highest number of executions in the world. Globally, we must protest exceptionally atrocious executions when they take place, such as that of the man recently beheaded and crucified in Saudi Arabia and the rare but utterly unacceptable reality of juvenile executions. Progress is being made: This summer, Togo became the fifteenth country in the African Union to abolish the death penalty.

While the rabbis' legal rulings effectively abolish the death penalty, they also express the sanctity of human life: "Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)." Human life itself is sacred beyond comprehension. We should abolish the death penalty not only for the sake of justice. We should abolish it for the sakes of holiness and humility.

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Sam Shonkoff

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute and The Conservative Yeshiva.