Advocates for Jew on death row say hopes are dimming

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Advocates for Jew on death row say hopes are dimming

Jedidiah Murphy killed 79-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham during a carjacking in 2000 in Dallas County, Texas. He is due to die by lethal injection on Tuesday.

Jedidiah Murphy wears a skull cap that was a gift from one of his supporters, Rabbi Yehuda Eber, in the death row unit at Polunsky prison in Livingston, Texas, Oct. 26, 2019. (Yehuda Eber)
Jedidiah Murphy wears a skull cap that was a gift from one of his supporters, Rabbi Yehuda Eber, in the death row unit at Polunsky prison in Livingston, Texas, Oct. 26, 2019. (Yehuda Eber)

Advocates for a Jewish man in Texas set to be executed on Tuesday are losing hope that he will avert his sentence.

A Chabad rabbi is planning a trip to Texas’ death row to lead a final ritual confession whilst Alan Dershowitz is trying to call the governor.

The inmate, Jedidiah Murphy, killed 79-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham during a carjacking in 2000 in Dallas County. He is due to die by lethal injection on Tuesday, Oct. 10, which is World Day Against the Death Penalty.

His case has mobilised Jewish opponents of the death penalty, including Dershowitz, the emeritus Harvard law professor and political commentator; Cantor Michael Zoosman, a former prison chaplain who runs L’Chaim, a Jewish anti-death penalty group; and Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, a Chabad rabbi in Houston who has advocated for Murphy for years.

But those advocates and Murphy all recognise that his opportunities to obtain clemency are running out. With days to go before the execution date, Murphy has written a thank-you letter to his supporters, parts of which Dershowitz shared with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“Please relay my sincere thanks to Professor Dershowitz for all that he has been putting into this,” Murphy wrote in the letter. “Should they deny clemency, chances are high that my time will be short.”

Since 1982, Texas has executed 583 people, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty — a far larger number than any other state.

Texas executed five men in 2022 and has executed the same number so far in 2023. Four more executions, including Murphy’s, are scheduled before the end of the year. If they are carried out, this year will see the most executions in the state since 2019, when Texas also carried out nine death sentences.

It is possible to avoid a death sentence with just days to go. Exactly four years ago, Randy Halprin, who was also Jewish and scheduled to be executed on Oct. 10 of that year, was granted a stay of execution on the grounds that the judge who presided over his trial was antisemitic and used anti-Jewish slurs. Last year, Halprin was granted a new trial.

In Murphy’s case, Dershowitz told JTA he was pessimistic about the prospects for a commutation. He has sought a conversation with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, but so far has not secured one.

In legal filings on Murphy’s behalf, Dershowitz has focused on the exacerbating circumstances that the prosecution cited to argue for the death penalty, including a kidnapping prior to the murder. But Murphy was never charged for that kidnapping, and there is evidence of an alibi.

Dershowitz has also argued that the jury’s conclusion that Murphy would again commit violence has been belied by his decades in prison without incident. The Texas Observer reported that Murphy has completed chaplaincy department programmes and wants to be a field minister in prison.

“Hope is running out, obviously,” Dershowitz said. “And it would be a wasted, wasted life. This is a man who could do good in prison, helping to counsel other people and using his religious faith as a way of helping other people.”

Goldstein, who in 2016 led Murphy through a bar mitzvah ceremony that included the laying of tefillin is now preparing for the possibility on Monday of conducting a much grimmer ritual with the prisoner — viddui, the traditional Jewish confession before death.

Zoosman says he communicates daily with Murphy.

“He’s hoping for the best but aware of the possibility of the worst, and I think we stand with him, supporting him as best we can,” Zoosman told JTA.

Murphy, was 25 when he shot and killed Cunningham and used her stolen credit cards to buy cigarettes and liquor. He recently told The Forward that he was high on cocaine and does not remember the incident. He has confessed to the crime. He did not respond to an email request for comment from JTA.

Murphy was abused as a child by his birth father and his adoptive father, and abandoned by his birth mother, who was Jewish, according to the Forward. The Observer reported that he sought mental health care in the year or so before murdering Cunningham, and doctors diagnosed him with mental dissociative identity disorder, major depression and alcohol dependency. They said he posed a threat.

The facility where Murphy is being held, the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, is named for a San Antonio man with Jewish heritage. The Observer reported that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has agreed to forgo the practice of embalming Murphy after his death, deferring to Jewish injunctions against tampering with a dead body.

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