Texas to Execute Jewish Man on World Day Against the Death Penalty

By | Aug 02, 2023
A collage including a picture of Jedidiah Murphy, as well as pictures of a court room and the Polk County Court House.

When Michael Zoosman first reached out to Jedidiah Murphy in 2021, he knew very little about his soon-to-be pen pal other than that he had been on death row in Livingston, Texas, for 20 years and that he was a practicing Jew. 

Now, after two years of spilled ink between them, Zoosman has a detailed understanding of the circumstances surrounding Murphy’s murder of 79-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham in 2000, Murphy’s seemingly sincere commitment to teshuvah (repentance), and his concern about the health and well-being of his peers and family members. 

In 2016, Murphy had the opportunity to become a bar mitzvah and don tefillin, an experience that he never had as a 13-year-old boy in and out of the foster care system. “It was a powerful moment for me and a dream come true,” he says. 

Jedidiah Murphy’s execution is scheduled for October 10, 2023, which also happens to be the 21st World Day Against the Death Penalty, a day recognized by the United Nations and Amnesty International. “Could it just be coincidence that Texas chose that day? Could be. Could it be intentional? Yes, it could,” says Zoosman, who is the cofounder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty. “Either way, it shows very openly where our country stands in comparison to most of the countries in our world today.”

Seventy percent of the world’s nations have abolished the death penalty, and others are in the process of doing so. Capital punishment remains legal in the United States at the federal level and in 27 states. On July 13, Representative Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts and Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois reintroduced the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act, which, if passed, would abolish capital punishment federally. The bill is unlikely to pass both in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it would need 60 yea votes, and in the Republican-controlled House. 

The state of Texas is responsible for more than a third of U.S. executions and has the second highest rate of executions per capita across the states, after Oklahoma. In 1982, Texas became the first state to administer a lethal injection, a method that was first implemented by Nazi Germany during World War II, and the method by which Murphy is set to be put to death. 

Lethal injection is not the only execution method with a Nazi legacy. In 2022, members of Arizona’s Jewish community sued the state over its use of Zyklon B, a lethal gas that claimed millions of lives during the Holocaust, to execute death row prisoners.

Zoosman was a supporter of the death penalty until he became a Jewish prison chaplain. “My eyes were opened to its horrors,” he says. Now, Zoosman is unable to shake the psychological torture described in his pen pal’s letters. While support for the death penalty reached a record low in 2020, many Americans continue to hold negative or ambivalent views on the abolition of capital punishment. A 2021 poll found that 60 percent of American adults favored the death penalty in cases of murder, with 27 percent of those respondents holding strong opinions on the matter. The Jewish community was found to be less supportive of capital punishment than Americans in general in a 2014 poll, but opinions are still mixed. “I think the death penalty is definitely on Jewish radar more than it has been in recent years, particularly because of the Tree of Life trial,” says Zoosman. “It’s a debate in a lot of people’s minds.” 

On August 2nd, Robert Bowers, the man who carried out the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, was sentenced to death by a federal jury. This news was a long time coming for the shooting victims’ families, nine of whom wrote in a letter to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle in 2022 that Bowers’ crimes “deserve the death penalty.” While not everyone who was close to the attack is in agreement (Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who leads the New Light Congregation, one of the three congregations that met at the Tree of Life building, was particularly vocal about his opposition), the antisemitic incident has forced the broader Jewish community to re-open conversations about whether the death penalty is justified in cases of murder. 

“I’m actually quite struck by the number of people who have classically taken a fairly liberal approach who have said, ‘But in this case…,’” Rabbi Danny Schiff, a Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told The New York Times.

While Jewish law permits the death penalty, it is presented as a last resort requiring substantial evidence, multiple witnesses to the crime, and extensive voting and deliberation by a rabbinical court. The Mishnah, a compendium of Jewish oral traditions from 200 CE, offers several perspectives on capital punishment that get progressively stronger in their opposition to the practice, with the exception of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (10 BCE – 70 CE), who believed that the death penalty deters people from committing murder. The question of whether reality supports the deterrence argument has been debated for decades. A 2020 analysis by the Death Penalty Information Center found that pandemic murder rates were higher in death-penalty states than non-death-penalty states. 

In partnership with the organization Death Penalty Action, which was founded by L’chaim cofounder Abraham Bonowitz, Zoosman recently launched a campaign to spare Murphy from execution. The campaign includes a petition titled “Stop the Execution of Jedidiah Murphy in Texas,” which currently has more than 1,100 signatures, as well as SaveJedidiahMurphy.org, which Zoosman hopes will “mobilize the Jewish community in Texas and across the country.” Zoosman knows that generating publicity will be a challenge. “In most other countries, any execution would be front page news. The value of a life is so low in this country. The state is taking a life and it doesn’t even make front-page news.”

Murphy himself thinks that more people would stand with L’chaim if there was more education on capital punishment. Still, he says that his looming death has allowed him to regain his faith and hope by giving him a new sense of purpose. It’s not been easy at all,” Murphy says, who sits in his 23rd year of isolation in a 7 by 9 foot cell. “But I found Hashem in the quiet places. It is my wish to serve others with my experience and pain. That is what I have asked Hashem for, and we will see what happens.”

Moment cofounder, writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel was an ardent supporter of death penalty abolition. In 2010, Wiesel spoke on capital punishment in a public address for the first time. In the address he mentioned Adolf Eichmann, a major Nazi perpetrator and one of the two German soldiers that deported Wiesel and the other Jewish inhabitants of his Romanian village to Auschwitz. Shockingly—though perhaps not so to audience members familiar with his writings and interviews on the topic—Wiesel asserted that people “should not be servants of death” and that Eichmann’s execution was “an example not to be followed.”

Zoosman says that Weisel’s thinking on the death penalty is at the core of L’chaim’s mission and activism. “Wiesel was aware of what can happen when we give the state the power to kill defenseless prisoners,” says Zoosman, who emphasizes that he does not equate the Holocaust with capital punishment. “He’s sort of like the prophet of our group.” Wiesel’s face is plastered all over L’chaim’s social media, appearing in the organization’s daily Twitter and Facebook postings.

Like Wiesel, Zoosman believes that honor is brought to the victims of death row inmates by upholding the value of life, and that “shedding more blood in victims’ names” only dishonors them. 

For the members of L’chaim, Murphy’s October 10 execution date comes as a direct slap in the face. “We chaplains call it synchronicity—a term coined by Carl Jung—when things align in certain meaningful ways,” explains Zoosman. “When this happens, the universe, Hashem, whatever you want to call it, is trying to tell us something. And we need to pay attention.”


Top image: Jedidiah Murphy and the Polk County Court House in Livingston, Texas. (Credit: LOC / Jim Evans CC BY-SA 4.0)

8 thoughts on “Texas to Execute Jewish Man on World Day Against the Death Penalty

  1. With profound gratitude to Moment Magazine for amplifying Jedidiah’s story…may he be spared!

  2. Barbara Newman MD,MPH says:

    May God forgive us all for still employing the death penalty.

  3. hag says:

    BOO HOO… (although I am against the death Penalty, I find it this kind of repentance, odious)

  4. I am and have been for as far back as I can remember opposed to executions.

    It is my intention to work for its abolition on the federal level and in all states that still hold to this heinous practice.

  5. YS says:

    September 12, 2023

    To the Honorable Governor Abbot and members of the Texas Board of Parole and Pardons,

    I am reaching out to you today concerning death row inmate JEDIDIAH MURPHY, TDCJ# 999392. As you are aware, Mr. Murphy is scheduled to be executed on October 10, 2023. Mr. Murphy is a native of Texas, and has served 22 years inside the Texas Criminal Justice system.
    While I am sure we both agree that Mr. Murphy, being found guilty of his crimes, must stand for the crimes he has committed, and I am sure the family of the victims are seeking closure. In no way am I minimizing their suffering, but how much closure the victims are entitled to under Texas Statute, is a matter unto itself. It is outrageous and alarming the high number of executions that continue to take place in Texas.
    As an offender in the State of Texas myself, and having served years in the TDCJ system, I can tell you that Mr. Murphy is already serving a death sentence. Incarceration is a complete and total severance from society personal liberties and individual freedom, a thorough removal from family and loved ones, and is, in effect, a living death sentence.
    As you also know, in his pre-teen and adolescent years, Mr. Murphy suffered horrific child abuse beyond his control, certainly causing psychological patterns of violence and other socialization issues. Mr. Murphy has paid, and has been paying, for his actions his entire life, not just since his incarceration.
    So, I beg to you, Governor and members of the Board, please show compassion on a troubled soul, and DO NOT EXECUTE MR. MURPHY. The good Lord has chosen YOU to lead this great State of Texas on the correct path. A path of peace and compassion, justice and tolerance.
    How will you justify your murder of Mr. Murphy? There is only ONE TRUE JUDGE. May he grant you the wisdom to act appropriately, and stand up to the inherent flaws and failures of the Texas death penalty system.

    Respectfully submitted,
    San Antonio TX

  6. Bella says:

    I am against ALL executions. I do NOT believe in capital punishment. It’s barbaric and gives no closure to anyone.

  7. Steven Heller says:

    When there is the slightest doubt about the guilt of the accused, there should be no death penalty.

    If, as in this case, there is no doubt about the guilt, and I could be certain about the guilty spending the rest of their life in jail, I would be unequivocally opposed to the death penalty.

    However, a future ‘enlightened’ society might decide the guilty’s exemplary prison behavior and seemingly genuine repentance merits them a second chance at freedom…and this makes me equivocate.

  8. Laura Riner says:

    He maliciously took a 79 year old woman’s life. Not only did he highjack her car he threw her in the trunk while shooting her. Drove around. Stopped. She was still alive so he DROWNED her. An eye for an eye. I’m sick to death of everyone screaming about his past and his “ooh now I’m a practicing Jew”. An eye for an eye.

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