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Fitting the Crime

Jews are split in their support of the death penalty for Buford O. Furrow, Jr.

by Naomi Pfefferman

March 9, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Eleanor Kadish had only returned to work for a couple of weeks when she learned that federal prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for Buford O. Furrow, Jr., the avowed white supremacist who is awaiting trial for allegedly shooting her son and four other people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center before murdering a Filipino-American postal worker Aug. 10.

For six months, Kadish, a recruiter for an employment agency, took off work to care for Benjamin, now 6, who was confined to a wheelchair after he was shot in the abdomen and the left upper thigh. The West Hills mother notes that her first grader still walks with a limp and cannot play with the other children during recess at his public school. "I still worry, 'Where are my children now? Are they well-protected?' These thoughts go through my mind all day long," she says.

And so Kadish did not find comfort as CNN and the newspapers blared the news that Furrow, if convicted, could die by lethal injection. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she is resigned to the fact that hate crime is integral to society. Even if Furrow dies, she says, "I think there are many more people out there very much like him."

Kadish, who spoke to prosecutors before they sought the death penalty, can't comment on whether she feels Furrow should die for his alleged crimes. Like other victims' relatives interviewed by The Journal, she does not want her remarks to interfere in any way with the prosecution.

While the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles vowed to support whatever sentence is handed down by the courts, and the Anti-Defamation League left Furrow's fate "up to the informed decision of the prosecutors," according to a spokesperson, other Jewish leaders were more vociferous about their opinions.

"Buford Furrow is a poster boy for capital punishment," national radio talk-show host Dennis Prager told The Journal, agreeing with the 55 percent of Americans who support death for the avowed racist, according to an August 1999 Gallup poll. "Furrow had the premeditated desire to murder as many human beings as possible. And the only way that society can declare how it feels about a crime is by the punishment it inflicts."

Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple, another longtime supporter of the death penalty, advocates death for Furrow, if convicted, because hate killers "have become subhuman and are a menace to humankind."

And Todd Carb, the 41-year-old Jewish paramedic who rushed to the scene of Furrow's crimes on Aug. 10, agrees for a more personal reason. Carb still thinks about the morning that he knelt beside Ben Kadish in the hallway of the NVJCC, struggling to work an IV into the boy's deflating veins, which demonstrated no discernable pulse. He remembers the bloody floor and the other scenes of violence and murder he has witnessed in his nearly 20 years as a paramedic.

There was the student who was raped and half-buried on a campus in Hollywood; the brain matter that was splattered all over an old Cadillac pushed over a hillside by a man who had beaten his wife to death and had staged an accident to hide the crime. Carb, who struggled to free the man's barely-conscious teenage daughter from the car, was himself endangered because the vehicle had been rigged to explode. "Based on what I've seen at work," he says, "I know that some people's actions are so offensive that only the death penalty is appropriate."

Nevertheless, Carb and others who support lethal injection for Furrow are aware of a strong, albeit minority opinion against the death penalty. Twenty percent of Jews polled for a 1998 survey published in the "Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics" oppose capital punishment.

Their qualms reverberate in the larger society. In late January, the governor of Illinois called for a moratorium on executions in his state because of a perceived pattern of racism and error by the criminal justice system. Just last week, The New York Times ran a front page story entitled "Questions of Death Row Justice for Poor People in Alabama." And late last year, the Reform and Conservative movements issued a joint statement with the Catholic church calling for an end to the death penalty.

In Los Angeles, perhaps no one is more outspoken against capital punishment than attorney Stephen F. Rohde, who serves on the board of Death Penalty Focus and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and is president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, where he also chairs the death penalty committee.

Rohde, who has represented a man on California's death row, will speak at a March 15 candlelight vigil on the eve of the execution of another convicted murderer at San Quentin. He will no doubt do the same for Furrow, if the racist is convicted and sentenced to death.

Rohde has been opposed to capital punishment since he was a boy, when he was chilled by the execution of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He remains so opposed to the death penalty that he would not have supported execution for Hitler, let alone Buford Furrow. "I just don't believe that the state should model its conduct after the worst moment of a person's life, namely the moment that a person commits murder," he says.

Doug Mirell, an ACLU board member who also opposes the death penalty "under all circumstances," questions whether prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Furrow for political reasons: namely, because of the outcry and the media attention. Rohde points out that the federal government accepted life imprisonment for Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber" who terrorized America with a series of first-degree murders and maimings.

Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, who was the CBS legal commentator during the O.J. Simpson trial, believes that the courts accepted life imprisonment for Kaczynski because he was found to be mentally ill. Nevertheless, Levenson, who is "not a big fan of the death penalty," says she is troubled about whether the ultimate punishment is appropriate for Furrow and is awaiting release of psychological studies on the avowed racist before finalizing her opinion.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who credits Jewish law for his opposition to capital punishment in most cases (see sidebar), believes Furrow is mentally disturbed and thus should be exempt from execution. However, he is convinced that a number of his congregants support capital punishment; Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah, meanwhile, laments that most of his congregants support the death penalty in general and for Furrow in particular.

Nevertheless, Jacobs, a board member of Death Penalty Focus, believes capital punishment is merely a "quick fix" for the anger and the spiritual emptiness that is prevalent in society. If Furrow is sentenced to death, he very well may preach against the execution from the pulpit, though he understands why other rabbis might be reluctant to do so. "It's difficult because you always wonder, 'Am I going to alienate my congregants?'" Jacobs says.

Had Furrow actually killed several Jewish children at the JCC, rabbis like Jacobs would find their position to be even more difficult. "There would be a huge clamor for the death penalty, and not just among Jews," Levenson says. "Because when you kill children, people tend to be unforgiving."

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