Stanley “Tookie” Williams (left) was sentenced to death but Wilbert Rideau (right) was freed from death row after serving 44 years in prison.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — Hammurabi’s code of law dates back to 1700 BCE yet it is present today in the form of capital punishment. A murderer ended someone’s life, so naturally his life should end as well. That’s only fair, right? Wrong. Isn’t it hypocritical to punish murderers by the death penalty? How can governments say it is wrong to kill when they are killing their own citizens?
Capital punishment took the lives of 682 people worldwide in 2012, not including the thousands of unrecorded executions believed to have taken place in China in 2011, according to Amnesty International. The United States was responsible for 43 of those 682 deaths. Although it is banned in 96 countries, capital punishment is still practiced in 58 nations.
In 1954, Israel abolished capital punishment except for those crimes committed by Nazi war criminals and those against humanity and the Jewish people. Adolf Eichmann has been the only person sentenced to death in Israel; he was hanged in 1962. Judaism does not favor the death penalty. In biblical times, there were so many conditions that had to be met before the death penalty could be imposed that the ancient Jewish court, comprised of 23 judges, hardly ever ruled in favor of execution. Judaism values life and teaches that God is the ultimate judge of people’s behavior.
As Jews we are taught to love and care for our neighbors, not kill them, despite what wrongs they may have committed. I believe that killing murderers is not a valid solution because it punishes the criminal with the exact action that we forbid. In addition, as much as this country promotes equality, there are inherent prejudices that surface during trials.
Members of low socioeconomic classes not only cannot afford the best lawyers, they are also subject to people’s racial biases. Worst of all are the cases where innocent people are wrongly accused and found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. In my opinion, killing someone is never justified.
The psychological torture of prisoners may be even worse than facing death. Wilbert Rideau, author of the autobiography, “In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance,” was freed from prison after 44 years on death row. He was released after a review of his original trial concluded that his punishment did not fit the crime. “Perpetual misery is your condition in life, and your reward for surviving today is that you get to suffer again tomorrow as well. We spent years like this, always indoors, with no sunshine,” he wrote in The Progressive (April 2011). Rideau described his painful, dark days in prison when he was let out of his cell for 15 minutes twice a week for showers and his only escape was reading and writing.
“Most of the pandemonium on death row was a result of men being driven mad by monotony, severe emotional deprivation, and the lack of normalcy … you begin a struggle to keep your sanity,” Rideau wrote.
In death row, prisoners can sometimes be locked in a cell for years without any sunlight, knowing that their death is looming in the distance. Often death row lasts at least 10 years but can continue for 20 or more years. Questioning the morality of such a sentence, the Death Penalty Information Center writes on its website, “This raises the question of whether death row prisoners are receiving two distinct punishments: the death sentence itself, and the years of living in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement.”
People can change during their time in jail, as did Rideau, who was released from prison in 2005. Unfortunately, the court system does not always take this into account, and transformed lives are often cut short.
Stanley “Tookie” Williams, for example, was a founder of the street gang, the Crips. During his 25 years on death row, Williams reformed, mended his ways and wrote books to deter adolescents from following in his footsteps. He also helped form a peace agreement between the Crips and their rivals, the Bloods. He was a new man, but his rehabilitation did not make a difference: the California court system murdered Williams in 2005.
“I don’t believe that when we execute a person that it’s the same person who committed that crime. I do believe people can change,” said Bobby Allen, a former prison guard, in an interview with Business Insider (February 2013).
Instead of punishing criminals, governments should focus on prevention and reformation. Factors that often lead to crime such as poverty, poor education and psychological problems should be addressed in order to create a safer and healthier society. Ending the death penalty and establishing systems to prevent the need for such a punishment would save the lives of the innocent and the criminals.
Fortunately, over the past five years, the U.N. General Assembly has approved four resolutions to suspend execution, and a total of 150 member nations have banned the death penalty or no longer use it, according to the UN News Centre.
I believe that capital punishment and leaving a person on death row are both uncivilized. These people are treated like animals in a slaughterhouse; they are kept in a cage without sunlight, unaware of how long they have left to live. Many of them are falsely accused; many of them have reformed in prison. The practice of capital punishment is unjust and hypocritical because the punishment is exactly the same as the crime. Hopefully, one day the world will live up to the cries made during every revolution about equality, freedom and the right to live by putting a stop to the injustice of capital punishment.
“Whosoever preserves one life … is as if he has preserved the whole world” (Babylon Talmud: Sanhedrin 37a).