From the Newsletter | When the State Serves Death

By | Aug 03, 2023
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This week, Moment covers two planned executions.

In October 2018, Robert Bowers killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, PA, the deadliest ever antisemitic attack on American soil. Yesterday, a federal jury sentenced Bowers to death after previously finding him guilty of 63 charges related to the massacre.

The Tree of Life shooting deeply impacted the American Jewish community.  “Pittsburgh has awakened us from the illusion that the boogeyman’s long gone,” responded Rabbi Gershon Winkler in Moment’s “Ask the Rabbis.” Chabad’s Rabbi Levi Shemtov wrote that “The worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history must shake us all to our core and cause some real reflection…Imagine! While Holocaust survivors still live among us, a murderer unleashes an evil fusillade against people he never knew except for one detail: They were Jews.”

As Ella Marx reports, Bowers appears unrepentant. He is among the legions of far-right white men radicalized online and emboldened on platforms such as Gab and Rumble. Moment has covered this phenomenon as part of our Antisemitism Project, although as editors we often ask ourselves whether this coverage helps quell hate, or merely adds fuel to the fire.

The Jewish community is less supportive of capital punishment than the general public, but, as Martine Schwan reports in a separate story, the Tree of Life trial has complicated that, and survivors and family members of the victims have welcomed the verdict. Martine’s piece is about Jedidiah Murphy, a practicing Jew who is scheduled to die in Texas on October 10, which happens to be the 21st annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. Murphy is in his 23rd year of isolation in a 7-by-9-foot cell. “It is my wish to serve others with my experience and pain,” Murphy told Schwan. “That is what I have asked Hashem for, and we will see what happens.”

These two cases, for obvious reasons, are of especial interest to Moment’s readers. Yet according to the Death Penalty Information Center there are about 2,400 individuals on death row in the United States, and as these stories were in development we couldn’t help thinking about the many other condemned who are on death row, whose lives and deaths also deserve attention—folks like my friend Marvin “Shaka” Walker, who at the age of 17 appeared in court in shackles and was condemned to die by an all-white jury after prosecutors had Black jurors removed. He’s spent the last 43 years on death row, and earlier this year became eligible for parole after a long-overdue retrial. I met Shaka through my uncle, who was one of Shaka’s lawyers and, over time, became a close friend. 

I’ve wanted to write about Shaka’s case before but couldn’t find a Jewish angle—a good example of how one’s identity and personal connections impact attention and chances of survival. Serendipitously, as I was writing this newsletter, I got a call from him, still at San Quentin. I asked for his perspective on these two stories.

“Here’s what I can tell you. It’s a dirty business to kill someone because they killed. I was with some real bad folks, I walked the yard with them, but I never looked forward to the day that they were executed. On that particular day, I always felt some kind of way—if the death penalty was so just, why would they execute somebody in the middle of the night, when everybody’s asleep? Why isn’t it done at high noon, or three o’clock, when [the public] is awake and focused on what’s being done in their name?”

Shaka pointed out that there’s a lot of money in the death penalty, and that a disproportionate number of those killed by the state are people of color.

“It’s cold to say that killing is wrong unless the state is the one doing the killing,” Shaka continued. “If you kill a man, that don’t bring back the person that died. It just don’t. You can kill him a hundred times, and it don’t bring that person back. My sister was killed, and I realized at some point that I had to stop hating the killer, in order to be alive again. And then I realized that I no longer hated him. I hated what he did. And I left it all up to God and his mercy. I’m trying to live my life with no hate in my heart towards anybody. It took a while, but I did manage to do that.”Can the Jewish world manage to do that as well, even with the likes of Bowers? Shaka’s words closely echo those of Moment co-founder Elie Wiesel, who was unambiguous in his condemnation of the death penalty even for Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Holocaust, whose trial in Israel Wiesel attended. “Society should not be the Angel of Death,” he said. “We should not be servants of death. The law should celebrate, glorify, sanctify life, always life.”

P.S. If you want to hear more from Shaka, check out his page on Prison Radio.

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