Interfaith confab kicks off anti-death penalty drive

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Fast-track legislation that may speed up death-row executions in California does not sit well with Sam Reese Sheppard.

The anti-death penalty activist was just 7 when his mother was murdered. The murderer was never caught. However, Sheppard's father, Cleveland-area dentist Sam Sheppard, spent 10 years on death row for the crime before he was exonerated and released. By then, his son was an adult.

"I grew up in a way that no child ever should," Sheppard, an Oakland resident, said during an interfaith conference on the death penalty at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on Thursday of last week.

The clergy members at the three-day gathering, representing Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist faiths, took turns at an opening press conference explaining why they've joined forces to abolish capital punishment.

The group, California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty, has been billed as the first interfaith effort to fight the state death penalty.

While it may be the first time they've come together to combat capital punishment, many of the religious leaders have already logged long years in the battle.

Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus and a founder of the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, said he hosted the first meeting of Death Penalty Focus of California, the conference organizers, at his L.A. synagogue some 50 years ago.

Drawing an analogy between his longevity in the effort and Jewish folklore, Beerman said, "I feel like that person in the Old Country who was employed by the Jewish community to watch for the coming of the Messiah.

"When another man asked the watchman how he could bear such a job, the watchman replied, `The pay is poor but the work is steady.'"

Amid the laughs, the rabbi turned sober, likening the long fight against the death penalty to waiting for the Messiah. The work ahead on this matter is equally long and wearisome, he said.

Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom said that while the Torah allows capital punishment, the rabbis of the talmudic era built safeguards against it in their writings, making it almost impossible to sentence someone to death.

"It took 1,000 years for rabbis to figure out that [capital punishment] was a damn fool way to observe the sanctity of life," Lew said, dubbing the talmudic reinterpretation a shift of the collective consciousness.

Today, however, "we are tragically watching the collective consciousness of this society moving backwards."

Lew wondered aloud what the pre-talmudic rabbis would have thought of rabbis like himself, who have protested at so many prison executions.

More than 500 death row inmates in California may lose the right of last-minute appeals under new state legislation that, if passed, would lead to more cases that qualify for the death penalty. The legislation is comprised of several bills, two of which have been approved by lawmakers and await voter approval, and a third that lies in committee in the state Senate.

The two bills headed for the ballot would allow for the death penalty in connection with the murder of a peace officer and clarify some of the special circumstances qualifying a convicted murderer for the death penalty.

The third bill, introduced by state Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), would enable a murderer associated with a criminal street gang to receive the death penalty.

The religious leaders at the conference, however, refute any circumstance as a valid reason to execute.

"None of us has the power of life or death. That belongs to God," said the Rev. George Regas. Regas is rector emeritus of Pasadena's All Saints Episcopal Church.

The clergy at the Thursday event signed a Statement of Conscience, proclaiming the coalition's commitment to rally against capital punishment. The declaration will be submitted to California lawmakers, said Lance Lindsey, director of Death Penalty Focus.

In the meantime, the spiritual leaders plan to educate and mobilize their respective communities. Death Penalty Focus will be working with the leaders to plan an annual conference and to establish a statewide holiday for religious communities to focus on the battle.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.