Justice, not vengeance

Justice, not vengeance

A jury representing a cross-section of our region found that the crimes the killer committed deserved the ultimate punishment.

On Aug. 2 — four years and eight months after a calculating and cowardly antisemite ripped 11 gaping holes in our communal heart — a federal jury sentenced him to the most severe punishment allowable by law: death.

The jurors came to their unanimous decision after being instructed by the court to weigh the aggravating factors in this case — those aspects that were most heinous — against the mitigating factors presented by the defense, such as the mental health of the defendant.

On Oct. 27, 2018, the killer stormed the Tree of Life building and shot everyone he saw. Most of his victims were elderly and some were mentally or physically disabled. He murdered 11 people, devout members of three congregations: Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life.

Our community will never forget those whose lives were brutally and senselessly ended that day: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Mel Wax and Irving Younger.

The killer, who meticulously planned his attack for six months, shot congregants Daniel Leger and Andrea Wedner, causing injuries that have altered their lives permanently. He shot at the brave first responders who rushed in to stop his murderous rampage, with Officers Michael Smidga, John Persin, Tyler Pashel, Dan Mead, Anthony Burke and Timothy Matson suffering serious injuries, some of which may never heal.

The killer caused acute and lingering psychological stress to those forced to run or hide from his wrath, fearing for their lives.

The evidence introduced at the trial — overwhelming and heart wrenching — proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the killer was motivated by rabid white supremacist animus and hatred for Jews and immigrants. The jury rejected the defense’s attempts to prove that the killer was mentally ill. And while he had a turbulent childhood, the jury found that any such evidence was outweighed by the irreparable harm he inflicted on his victims, and by his lack of remorse.

He attacked those who had come to what should have been a safe space — a sanctuary — and later boasted about it to the expert witnesses who examined him in preparation for trial. He told them he regretted he didn’t kill more people, and that he hated Jews even more now. He told them that he planned his attack with the hope that it would motivate others to do the same, lamenting the fact that he wasn’t honored with a parade.

He is, in short, a monster.

In its closing argument, the prosecution explained to the jury that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release was the minimum punishment required for the killer’s crimes, but that each death he caused deserved instead to be answered with the maximum allowable penalty — death.

There are compelling arguments both in favor of and against the death penalty in general, and Judaism has a nuanced take on the subject. While Jewish law “makes carrying out the death penalty difficult, exceptional and rare,” Rabbi Danny Schiff wrote in these pages in May, “the death penalty remains a possibility.”

In our federal court system, the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst. It is the ultimate punishment, handed down only for the most heinous and abhorrent crimes.

After two months of absorbing the evidence — some harrowing, some tedious — a jury representing a cross-section of our region found that the crimes the killer committed deserved the ultimate punishment.

His sentence is not about vengeance. It is about justice.

While we can’t expect this verdict to bring about closure for the loved ones of those who were killed and the survivors, we hope and pray that having the trial behind them will bring some sense of relief.

We thank the members of the jury for their attention, their dedication and their commitment throughout their many weeks of service. PJC

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