Thursday, November 05, 2009

DOES ISRAEL NEED THE DEATH PENALTY?

What child killers deserve


The murder of children makes the blood boil. We find ourselves immersed in the grisly details of how Hodaya Kedem Pimstein, Rose Pizem, Ta'ir Rada and now the Oshrenko children were slain. Often the first thought that comes to mind - and President Shimon Peres articulated this on Tuesday - is that anyone who could murder a child is a monster, not a human being.

A second thought, for some, is: If only Israel had capital punishment, child killers would get the punishment they deserve.

As The Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday, four Knesset members have cosponsored legislation to amend clause 300 of the Criminal Code, to establish the death penalty for the murder of children under the age 13. "Human life is sacred, but murderers of children are not humans, but rather predatory animals," said Carmel Shama of Likud, a co-sponsor.

THE BIBLE instructs: "He that smiteth a man, so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12) Stoning, burning and hanging are biblically prescribed for any number of capital offenses.

But the tendency of rabbinic Judaism has been toward the abolition of the death penalty. This position is captured in the following Mishna (Makkot 1:10): "The Sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years is called 'murderous.' Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria says that this extends to one execution in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, 'If we had been among the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been executed.' [But] Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel [who believed capital punishment had a deterrent effect, dissented and] said, 'Such an attitude would increase bloodshed in Israel."

Nowadays, the three main streams of American Judaism, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, are institutionally unenthusiastic about the death penalty. Here, the Knesset abolished the death penalty in 1954, making it an option only in treason-related offenses. The only person ever executed in Israel was Adolf Eichmann, who was hanged in 1962 after being found guilty of crimes against humanity.

Politically, opposition to capital punishment is not necessarily a liberal versus conservative issue. Philosopher Ayn Rand argued that capital punishment was perfectly moral, but she opposed implementation of the penalty out of concern that in rare instances innocent people could be put to death. "Better to sentence nine actual murderers to life imprisonment, rather than execute one innocent man," she famously wrote.

Indeed, the still ongoing case of Roman Zadorov, who is accused of murdering Ta'ir Rada, raises all sorts of concerns about capital punishment. A DNA test failed to match the suspect to the victim. Key evidence which could have exonerated Zadorov has apparently gone missing. And there are misgivings that his confession may have been coerced. Parenthetically, confession alone is insufficient grounds for capital punishment in Jewish tradition.

For many crimes, the sages of Israel laid stress on compensation, making good the damage done, rather than incarceration. Modern Israel demands compensation - where possible - as well as incarceration.

WE VIEW recent calls for the death penalty as reflecting an understandable frustration. In our day-to-day lives, including on the roads, there is the sense that menace lurks at every turn; we're seeing more and more quality-of-life crimes in the public square. The murder of the Oshrenko children rattles us even further. In these circumstances, it is far easier for politicians to call for the death penalty than to undertake the hard slog of reforming the country's police, criminal justice and penal systems.

The finality of capital punishment guarantees zero recidivism, yet criminologists continue to debate whether it has any deterrent value.

While less cathartic, Knesset members should be seeking genuine solutions to make Israelis more secure:

• Improve police professionalism with better pay and training; fund community-based policing, and encourage an emphasis on forensic work over achieving confessions.

• Institute mechanisms to hold prosecutors and judges professionally accountable for plea-bargains gone wrong.

• Mandate sentencing guidelines to ensure that "life in prison" means just that - with the possibility of parole reserved for exceptional circumstances.

ALBERT CAMUS pointed out that the death penalty has been around practically as long as murder itself - yet crime persists.

As for what to do with child-killers? Lock them up and throw away the key.

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