a small green metal chamber with a heavy vault-like door inside of a larger room
The gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison prior to its disassembly in March 2019. (California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation)

Yes, review Alameda County death penalty cases — but go even further

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This spring, long-hidden evidence came to light that Alameda County prosecutors had for decades systematically excluded Jews, African Americans and women from serving on juries in death penalty cases. 

Handwritten notes in case files were discovered, specifically targeting Jews: One read: “Banker. Jew?” Another read: “I liked him better than any other Jew but no way.” 

Excluding particular groups of people from juries is unconstitutional in part because we are entitled to a jury of our peers and because it denies entire classes of individuals the right to participate in basic civic functions. As citizens, it is our right — our obligation, even — to serve on juries.

Discrimination in jury selection is not new, nor is it limited to excluding Jews. 

A 1983 training manual for prosecutors in Dallas, Texas, explicitly directed prosecutors: “Do not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how well educated.” Our country’s criminal justice system has long been rooted in racist practices, originally established to keep Black citizens and other disfavored minorities in their place. Controlling, through any means necessary, who serves on a jury is one element of this oppression.

Since 1973, 199 people in the U.S. have been exonerated after being wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That is one exoneration for every eight people executed in the U.S. during that time. Dozens of other innocent men and women have been coerced into accepting plea deals for crimes they did not commit in order to secure their release from death row. A 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that at least 4% of those sentenced to death are innocent.

According to Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, the recent discovery of rampant prosecutorial misconduct in jury selection may require overturning convictions in as many as 35 death penalty cases and lead to the retrying of 30-year-old cases.

Who among us wants to be responsible for executing an innocent person?

Who among us wants to be responsible for executing an innocent person?

As the Rambam teaches, “If punishment was given based on estimation and circumstantial evidence, it is possible that someday an innocent person would be executed. And it is preferable and more proper that even a thousand guilty people be set free than to someday execute even one innocent person.” (Sefer Hamitzvot)

Public opinion polling has repeatedly shown that a majority of Jews in the United States are opposed to the death penalty. Our sacred teachings remind us: If you destroy one life, it is as though you have destroyed all humankind; whereas if you preserve one life, it is as though you preserved all humanity. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) After the horrific loss of life in the Holocaust, Jewish opposition to capital punishment has grown even stronger.

What has happened in Alameda County is appalling, especially when considered in the context of the racist nature of our incarceration system and the pervasive presence of antisemitism in the United States.

Yet we can right this wrong.

We applaud Price for taking this issue seriously and urge her to move forward quickly with reviewing all of the cases identified with this travesty of justice.

In the same vein, we applaud Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s decision in April  seeking to resentence 14 people prosecuted by his office who are currently on death row. We encourage every district attorney in California to follow suit.

As we advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty, we are also seeking clemency for those currently sentenced to death. 

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty. We will continue to ask the governor to grant universal clemency to everyone on death row in California, and we urge you to add your name to our petition. It is crucial that the governor do this soon. He cannot run for a third term in 2026 and could be replaced by a death penalty advocate.

We were raised by parents who taught us that standing on the side of the oppressed is at the heart of Judaism. We work to eliminate the death penalty in honor of our parents’ memories. We stand on their shoulders as we work for universal clemency for all 636 people currently on death row in California.

Flaurie S. Imberman (Courtesy)
Flaurie S. Imberman

Flaurie S. Imberman is co-chair of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, California. She lives in Sunnyvale.

Elie Axelroth (Courtesy)
Elie Axelroth

Elie Axelroth is a volunteer leader with Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, California. She lives in San Luis Obispo.