More News on the Death Penalty

The New York Times and the Jewish Daily Forward reported this week that David Ranta had been freed from prison having spent 23 years there for a crime he did not commit. That crime was the murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger in 1990.

Rabbi Werzberger was a member of the insular but influential Hassidic sect known as Satmar.

At the time, the New York City police department went “all out” to find the killer. The Times reported that 40 detectives were assigned to the case. But in spite of that (or perhaps because of it), they wound up charging the wrong man.

In a litany of civil liberties abuses that have become commonplace in our newspaper readings these days, the investigating officers solicited perjury, subjected Mr. Ranta to abusive questioning, and made bargains that resulted in sweet deals for people who should have been spending their own long terms in prison.

Mr. Ranta was perhaps no angel, but neither was he a murderer, and as it has now been shown–beyond a reasonable doubt–that he did not murder Rabbi Werzberger, he is at long last a free man.

But none of that is actually why I am writing. A detail in the story in the Times caught my attention. At the time that Mr. Ranta was arrested, perhaps because of the sensational nature of the case, the arrest was conducted in a highly public fashion. Large numbers of Satmar members turned up and were seen banging on the roof of the car transporting Mr. Ranta shouting “Death penalty!”

The Bible does (of course) list the death penalty for a number of infractions. As most students of the Talmud know, Judaism in subsequent centuries has made it very difficult to enforce a death penalty for any crime. The modern State of Israel has executed only one person in its history: Adolph Eichmann for his role as an architect of the Holocaust.

The Talmud has a myriad of mechanisms to avoid enforcing a death penalty statute, but Jews have long recognized the primary reason we have shunned that ultimate penalty. Simply put, when a State can inflict death, it has all too often been wielded against Jews.

The Satmar should have been aware of that. Thank God the justice system paid no heed to the throng. Mr. Ranta spent 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but at least he is alive to tell the story.

As for the person who did kill Rabbi Werzberger, thanks to the zealous police department and Satmar’s own rush to judgment, that person will probably never be identified, much less prosecuted.

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