The One About The Death Penalty

Ooooooh.   Heavy topic.

I went to an ADL meeting last night because the organization has been asked by members in Connecticut to change its current position at the national level.  The ADL’s current position is this:  “the League takes ‘no position’ on the issue of capital punishment except to favor it in cases involving terrorists who murder Americans abroad.”  The ADL came to this position after the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, during which the hijackers killed disabled American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, and dumped his body overboard (and then suggested that his wife might have killed him for the insurance money).

I went to the meeting because I thought that the West Coast Regional Board, being a little more towards the older and more liberal tilt, would agree that the civil rights organization should change its longstanding position and join with other groups in opposition to the death penalty.

I went to the meeting because I support the death penalty.  I always have.  I think growing up in Los Angeles and knowing that Charles Manson was sentenced to death two years before I was born, and hearing about his coming up for parole every now and then, has reinforced my support for it.  (Interestingly, I now live about a half mile away from the Benedict Canyon neighborhood where Sharon Tate was murdered.)

I don’t have a vote on the ADL regional board but I went to hear how the conversation went.  They didn’t devote as much of the meeting to it as I had thought they would.   The guest speaker was LA Police Chief Charlie Beck, whom they did not ask to speak on the death penalty issue.  Beck spoke generally about the culture of the LAPD and noted that despite the fact that people feel that our city is not safe, crime levels are lower than they have been for nearly 50 years.

So when they finally got to the death penalty question, they had two board members, both attorneys (both employment attorneys, which I found interesting…), come up to make brief presentations on the topic.  As they approached the front table, I made a guess as to which one would be taking each side:  the one in his forties would be advocating retaining the ADL’s no-position position, and the one in his 60’s would be advocating changing the position to oppose the death penalty.  I was right.

Both presenters gave very brief statements, under about 4 minutes each.  They each took notes on what the other said, but they were not given an opportunity to rebut each other.  When they were done, the chair immediately called for a vote, and seemed surprised that some board members in the audience wanted to discuss the issue, or to make statements about their opinions before voting.

Of the fewer than 10 people who spoke, more than half said that they thought the death penalty was not a core ADL issue.  One of the issues that the speaker who favored changing the position noted was the racial disparity in the charging and implementation of the death penalty, and several board members noted that if anything, this was the issue that the ADL could tackle, as opposed to whether or not the death penalty should be available to prosecutors at all.

One board member noted that the ADL has very strong ties to law enforcement – they participate in training law enforcement officers with regard to religious sensitivity and hate crimes – and that he would not want to change the ADL’s position to one which alienates the organization’s law enforcement partners.

I have to say I was surprised at the discussion and the outcome.  I was expecting that this board would overwhelmingly vote to change the current policy.  I was completely wrong – the vote was almost unanimous NOT to change the policy.  The whole discussion, including the attorney presentations, took less than 20 minutes.

This is just one region of a large national organization.  We’ll see what other regions do, and whether the ADL national board decides to change the position regardless.

Intelligent and well-meaning people disagree on this issue, and that’s OK.  Last night’s very civil conversation among intelligent and well-meaning people can serve as an example of how we can have political conversations that don’t spiral down into accusations and name-calling.  I guess last night’s meeting was the opposite of today’s shout-radio, shout-blog and shout-television political yammering.  As we move towards November, it’s something to think about.

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