Death penalty still stirring passions

In a quiet hillside conference room on the sprawling Los Altos Hills campus of Congregation Beth Am, a small group gathered on Shabbat afternoon to consider a matter of life or death.

Rabbi Janet Marder introduced the Sh’ma Salon topic, “Jewish Views on Capital Punishment,” by noting the intensity felt by both proponents and opponents of the death penalty.

“Someone said, ‘Rabbi, this is really quite a topic for our Shabbat,'” she said during the Saturday, Dec. 13, session. “But Shabbat is about learning and expanding our souls.”

About 65 people turned out to hear Lane Liroff, deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County, and defense attorney Charles Mesirow debate a topic with seemingly little middle ground. Yet most of the people in the room indicated they hadn’t hardened their position.

The rabbi seemed to speak for many.

“In extraordinarily rare circumstances I would want to assure that it was possible,” she said, noting that capital punishment is also an option in Israel, for extreme crimes such as genocide. Nazi Adolf Eichmann, captured by Israel’s secret service and tried in Israel, was the only man ever executed by the Jewish state.

Liroff, who has been trying capital cases for 15 years, sees a broader need to take an eye for an eye. “The position I’ve come to feels quite comfortable, in that there is an evil in the world,” he said, adding that his belief has been solidified by attending so-called “lifer hearings,” during which people sentenced to life with the possibility of parole plead their case to be released from prison.

“Ninety percent of them have gotten on with their lives,” he said. “They write. They read. They get married. They commit other crimes in prison. But I don’t see that they adequately pay restitution.”

There was little agreement on whether restitution was the goal of capital punishment, however.

Mesirow once teetered on the edge of the “revenge” camp. After a stint in the Santa Clara County prosecutor’s office, he has been a criminal defense attorney for 27 years. “What if, in front of your own eyes, your family was taken from you by some criminal?” he asked. “My initial reaction was that I would pull the switch. But I began to think of the sanctity of human life.” The United States ranks behind only China and the Congo in the number of state-sponsored executions, he said.

Also troubling for Mesirow is the fact that the accused face different penalties across state lines, and varying degrees of defense.

Screened was a short documentary, “Interview with an Executioner,” produced by California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty, which said some who are put to death are innocent.

Whether the accused is innocent or guilty, for Mesirow, the question of capital punishment speaks to the soul of the nation. “The measure of a great society,” he said, “is how we treat our lesser citizens.”