Some 50 rabbis in this state, including a number from this area, have written to the New Jersey Legislature urging it to abolish the death penalty. They join more than 500 members of their Christian colleagues in taking this stand.
The legislature is poised to decide on this issue by the end of the current legislative session, Jan. 8, one year after the 13-member New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission recommended that the practice be abolished.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue in Hoboken and a member of the commission, is actively engaged in supporting that position.
"I’ve been interested in this issue for a long time," said Scheinberg, who co-wrote a rabbinic letter urging legislators to vote for N.J. Senate Bill 171 and Assembly Bill 3716, which would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The rabbinic letter, together with a list of signatories, can be found at www.njadp.org. Co-writers of the letter included Rabbi Benjamin Kelsen, an Orthodox rabbi from Teaneck; Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff from the Reform movement; and Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, former president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
One signer of the letter, Rabbi Debra Hachen, religious leader of Temple Beth El in Closter, noted that her congregants are increasingly troubled by the number of people being found to have been unjustly convicted, whether through DNA testing or as a result of forced confessions. "It’s not just one or two people every century," she said. "We’ve reached a tipping point. It’s really changing."
Hachen pointed out that the Reform movement has long been on record as opposing the death penalty, which, it holds, neither serves as a deterrent nor is applied equally.
"The death penalty is severely curtailed by the Talmud," she said. "There were so many restrictions, it was pretty much abolished" in practice.
Scheinberg, who is Conservative, is a longtime supporter of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty which, according to its Website, works to "to win public and political support for the elimination of execution as a form of punishment in New Jersey." He was one of two commission members representing the religious community. The other was the Rev. William Howard of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark.
"I was extremely honored to be on the commission," Scheinberg said. "It’s different from anything else I’ve done as a rabbi. It brings a distinctively Jewish voice to this conversation." Scheinberg added that while "there’s no consensus on what’s right in theory, that’s not what we were asked. We were asked, ‘Is this right for New Jersey?’"
The commission "recommended to the legislature that the death penalty be replaced by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," said Scheinberg, noting that "not a single religious leader testified [before the commission] in favor of the death penalty." And, he said, the "overwhelming majority" of those who testified spoke against it.
Most compelling was "the ever-present possibility of executing innocent people," he said, stressing that the Talmud is replete with restrictions that try to prevent this from occurring. The rabbi also cited the case of N.J. resident Larry Peterson, whose murder conviction was recently overturned on the basis of DNA evidence after he served18 years in prison.
"Peterson appeared before the commission and said that New Jersey had made a mistake in convicting him, but at least they hadn’t executed him," said Scheinberg.
Citing other reasons for the commission’s recommendation, Scheinberg said that "in New Jersey, the death penalty appears to be carried out capriciously." There have been no executions in this state since 1963, said Scheinberg, and some of the eight prisoners on death row have been there for many years.
He noted that the commission which included county prosecutors, a chief of police, a former state Supreme Court justice, and the state attorney general contained some people who supported the death penalty in theory but who ultimately concluded that it doesn’t work in New Jersey. Only one commission member, Sen. John Russo, dissented from the recommendation; Attorney General Stuart Rabner abstained, but indicated he would have no trouble implementing the recommendation, should it become law.
"The death penalty [is treated] in rabbinic tradition as means to an end," said Scheinberg, with the penological intent whether deterrence or retribution stated or implied. "Therefore," he said, "my approach was to ask the question, ‘How well does it meet those objectives in this society?’"
According to Scheinberg, evidence that "the death penalty serves as a deterrent is at best inconclusive." If it really worked, he suggested, there would be much harder evidence. In addition, he said, the commission held that "the cost of imposing the death penalty is significantly more than life in prison without parole."
Families of murder victims testified overwhelmingly in favor of abolition, said Scheinberg, noting that "some of them weren’t always against the death penalty." But after their personal experience where closure was impeded by the intense publicity given to the perpetrator, even when the death penalty was not administered they changed their minds.
"It doesn’t help them focus on the memory of the deceased," said Scheinberg. Rather, it diverts attention to the perpetrator, "with an adverse effect on victims’ families."
On the issue of "retribution, applying to certain acts so heinous that they demand the evil to be swept away," Scheinberg who said that his views are "definitely informed" by his study of Jewish ethics and Jewish law said there are other ways for society to express its condemnation. The commission, charged with investigating whether "alternatives to the death penalty exist that would sufficiently ensure public safety and address other legitimate social and penological interests, including the interests of families of victims," concluded that this need is met by life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
On Monday, the state Senate will vote on the bill, which this week was cleared by its Budget Committee. The Assembly will consider similar legislation next week as well. If the companion bills pass, New Jersey would become the first state to abolish capital punishment.
"I’m very, very proud that religious leaders in our community stood up in such great numbers on this issue and made their thoughts known," said Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist.37), co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate. "I think it represents their thoughts and the way I feel, and I hope the way the majority of the state legislature feels. It represents the best of Jewish values. Every so often, we are called upon to pass legislation that really speaks to those core values."