Last night Troy Davis, a 42-year old man convicted of murdering police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah 22 years ago, was put to death by lethal injection in a Georgia prison.
It was a case heard, and protested, around the world by supporters including Pope Benedict XVI, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and former FBI Director William Sessions. Davis supporters believed that the evidence used to convict him was shaky since no murder weapon was found, there was no DNA evidence linking him to the scene, and seven of the nine original eyewitnesses recanted part or all of their original testimony. Davis maintained his innocence until the end.
Regardless of where one falls on the debate of this particular case, Troy Davis’ story is a tough reminder that America’s justice and prison systems, as well as the way our country thinks about justice in general, is in need of reform. It is a reminder that we have a long way to go in the fight to stand up for criminal justice and civil and human rights, as well as the rights of a victim’s family. Above all else, Davis’ execution calls upon us to reflect on the role of the death penalty in a civilized society.
The Jewish tradition itself looks quite unfavorably upon the death penalty. Though the Torah enumerates several capital offenses and Judaism indisputably views the death penalty as morally just in certain cases, the Rabbis of the Talmud made it nearly impossible to enforce. According to Rabbinic law, a crime had to be observed by two unimpeachable witnesses (a highly improbable scenario) who had to then warn the offender that the crime they were committing was punishable by death. The offender would then have to specifically acknowledge being told it was a capital crime, then proceed to commit that crime before the witnesses. After a decision by a court of 71 judges – which legally cannot be unanimous lest the verdict be invalidated, the eyewitnesses would then have to be the ones to carry out the death sentence. Even with such a rigorous standard, the Mishnah says:
A Sanhedrin that executed [more than] one person in a week is called a “murderous” [court]. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah states: [more than] one person in 70 years [would be denoted as a murderous court]. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva state: “If we had been members of the Sanhedrin, no defendant would ever have been executed.”
The Rabbis thus believed it was better to let a guilty man go free than to accidentally shed the blood of an innocent. That is certainly a far cry from what took place last night in Georgia.
While MacPhail and Davis’ lives have ended, their stories have not. Jews have a long history of fighting for justice, and in the coming days and months we have an opportunity to do just that. Here are a few ideas of how to get involved:
- Amnesty International works both nationally and internationally to protect human rights. They helped lead the charge in supporting Davis and are working to bring an end to capital punishment. Keep up to date with and support their work via their Facebook page.
- The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. Keep up to date with and support their work via their Facebook page.
- The NAACP, which was closely involved with Davis’ case, is the world’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Keep up to date and support their work via their Facebook page.
Speak your mind
- Join over 35 Orthodox rabbis in supporting Uri L’Tzedek’s Prison Reform Campaign.
- The White House just released a new petition site called “We the People” – make your voice heard about the issues you believe in.
- Learn more about Change.org’s criminal justice campaigns and how you can get involved here. (Read Repair the World’s interview with Change.org here.)
Help end violence
- Volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club or another youth mentoring organization to help open the door to a bright future for America’s kids.
Learn more about Judaism’s stance on the death penalty