The Reform and Conservative movements are seeking clemency for Timothy McVeigh a week before the convicted Oklahoma City bomber is scheduled to die by lethal injection. In a letter to President Bush on Tuesday, the two movements joined numerous prominent religious leaders in opposing the death penalty for McVeigh, saying they are concerned about the imperfect justice system in the United States, and the fact that innocent people could be executed if the death penalty is condoned.
“When the government responds to violence with violence,” the letter said, “its action breeds more violence.”
McVeigh is scheduled to die May 16 in Terre Haute, Ind.
He was convicted of masterminding and carrying out the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, 19 of them children, and wounding at least 400 others. An accomplice, Terry Nichols, was sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge and may also face state charges in Oklahoma.
The letter also calls for a moratorium on federal executions and for clemency for Juan Raul Garva, scheduled to be executed June 19 for killing three men in the early 1990s. His execution, originally scheduled for last August, was postponed by President Clinton, who ordered a review of clemency guidelines.
Many Jewish organizations are opposed to the death penalty. They cite the possible innocence of those on death row, possible racial or economic bias — and whether the accused had competent legal representation.
None of those factors are at play in the McVeigh case. Even so, the leader of the Reform movement said it must oppose McVeigh’s execution — and all others — because of concerns about the death penalty.
“You have to make note of the terrible suffering he caused,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “But the fact of the matter is that with the death penalty, you can’t be for it part of the time and against it part of the time.”
Yoffie said the justice system is “too prone to error.”
“We are concerned about those who sit on death row now and in the future where there will be questions about their guilt or innocence,” he said. “The only way to deal with this is to stop the death penalty.”
While the issue is important to Jewish leaders, it does not appear to be a priority for the Jewish community as a whole.
In a survey released last month by Amos, a new Jewish social action coalition, fewer than half of the 1,002 Jews polled said they were in favor of a moratorium on capital punishment. It was the only social cause in the survey that had a majority of opposition.
And even some people who have reservations about the death penalty in general are in favor of the punishment for McVeigh because of the severity of his crime, the deadliest terrorism incident on U.S. soil.
The Orthodox movement has been quieter on the death penalty issue.
Orthodox Union President Harvey Blitz said the movement does not want to abolish the death penalty, but supports a moratorium because of concerns about the execution of innocent people.
But the O.U. does not oppose McVeigh’s execution, in part because he has already confessed to the bombing.
Jewish law sees the death penalty as an appropriate response to certain types of sins, while noting it must be done with caution and under strict rules of evidence.
Yoffie admits that it is unlikely that the letter will likely sway anyone at the White House. Already, Bush has rejected a call from Pope John Paul II for clemency for McVeigh.
“It would be very hard to believe that the president would stop the execution,” Yoffie said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.