Is death sentence merited in L.A. hate-crime shooting

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Eleanor Kadish had only returned to work for a couple of weeks when she learned that federal prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for Buford Furrow Jr.

For six months, Kadish, a recruiter for an employment agency, took off work to care for her son Benjamin, now 6, who was using a wheelchair after being shot in the abdomen and the left upper thigh.

Furrow is awaiting trial for allegedly shooting Benjamin and four other people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center last August before murdering a Filipino-American postal worker.

Kadish, who says her son still walks with a limp and cannot play with the other children during recess at his public school, is still haunted by what happened at the community center.

"I still worry, 'Where are my children now? Are they well-protected?' These thoughts go through my mind all day long," she says.

Kadish did not find comfort when the media reported that Furrow, if convicted, could die by lethal injection.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she is resigned to the fact that hate crime is integral to society. "I think there are many more people out there very much like him."

Kadish, who spoke to prosecutors before they sought the death penalty, would not comment on whether she feels Furrow should die if convicted of the shooting. Like other victims' relatives interviewed by the Journal, she does not want her remarks to interfere in any way with the prosecution.

While the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles vowed to support whatever sentence is handed down by the courts, and the Anti-Defamation League left Furrow's fate "up to the informed decision of the prosecutors," according to a spokesperson, other Jewish leaders are more vociferous in their opinions.

"Buford Furrow is a poster boy for capital punishment," says national radio talk-show host Dennis Prager. "The only way that society can declare how it feels about a crime is by the punishment it inflicts."

Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple, another longtime supporter of the death penalty, advocates the death penalty if Furrow is convicted, because hate killers "have become subhuman and are a menace to humankind."

And Todd Carb, the 41-year-old Jewish paramedic who rushed to the community center last August, agrees for a more personal reason.

Carb still thinks about the morning that he knelt beside Benjamin in the center's hallway, struggling to work an IV into the boy's deflating veins, which demonstrated no discernable pulse.

He remembers the bloody floor of the center — as well as other scenes of violence and murder he has witnessed in his nearly 20 years as a paramedic.

"Based on what I've seen at work," he says, "I know that some people's actions are so offensive that only the death penalty is appropriate."

Nevertheless, Carb and others who support capital punishment are aware of a strong, albeit minority opinion against the death penalty.

Late last year, the Reform and Conservative movements issued a joint statement with the Catholic church calling for an end to the death penalty.

In Los Angeles, perhaps no one is more outspoken against capital punishment than attorney Stephen Rohde, who serves on the board of Death Penalty Focus and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and is president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, where he also chairs the death-penalty committee.

Rohde has opposed capital punishment since he was a boy, when he was chilled by the execution of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He is so firmly against the death penalty that he would not have supported execution for Hitler. "I just don't believe that the state should model its conduct after the worst moment of a person's life, namely the moment that a person commits murder," he says.

Rohde points out that the federal government accepted life imprisonment for Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber" who terrorized America with a series of first-degree murders and maimings.

Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, who was the CBS legal commentator during the O.J. Simpson trial, believes that the courts accepted life imprisonment for Kaczynski because he was found mentally ill.

Nevertheless, Levenson, who is "not a big fan of the death penalty," says she is troubled about whether the ultimate punishment is appropriate for Furrow, if he is convicted. She is awaiting release of psychological studies on the avowed racist before finalizing her opinion.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who credits Jewish law for his opposition to capital punishment in most cases, believes Furrow is mentally disturbed and thus should be exempt from execution.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah, meanwhile, laments that most of his congregants support the death penalty in general and for Furrow in particular.

Nevertheless, Jacobs, a board member of Death Penalty Focus, believes capital punishment is merely a "quick fix" for the anger and the spiritual emptiness that is prevalent in society.

Had several Jewish children been killed at the JCC, rabbis such as Jacobs would find their position even more difficult to defend.

"There would be a huge clamor for the death penalty," Levenson says, "and not just among Jews."

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal