Criminal Justice

Alan Dershowitz, Jewish groups lead last ditch clemency appeal for death row prisoner Jedidiah Murphy

Murphy, who was convicted of the 2000 carjacking and murder of an elderly woman, is one of at least two Jewish individuals on Texas’ death row.


AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File
FILE – The gurney in Huntsville, Texas, where inmates are strapped down to receive a lethal dose of drugs, is shown May 27, 2008. Public support and use of the death penalty in 2022 continued its more than two-decade long decline in the U.S., and many of the executions that were carried out were "botched" or highly problematic, according to an annual report on capital punishment released Friday, Dec. 16.

Jedidiah Murphy of Dallas County is scheduled to be put to death on October 10 for the 2000 carjacking and murder of an elderly woman. Criminal attorney Alan Dershowitz and Jewish death-penalty opponents are making an eleventh-hour plea to Governor Greg Abbott for clemency.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Murphy carjacked 79-year-old Bertie Lee Harmon Cunningham. After she drove him about 30 miles, Murphy forced her into the trunk of her car, shooting her in the process. Murphy then drove Cunningham's car to Van Zandt County, removed her from the trunk, and drowned her in a creek.

"Even in some states that have the death penalty, it's usually reserved for the most heinous of criminals and most dangerous," Dershowitz said, "and in Texas, in order to impose the death penalty, you have to find that he would probably pose a danger in the future, either to prison guards or to inmates, or if and when he were to get out in 40-some-odd years as an old man."

Vivian Schwarz
Undated image of Jedediah Murphy

Dershowitz said the only reason Jedidiah Murphy was sentenced to die was because the jury believed he was involved in another violent crime previously.

"The underlying offense that was used to prove that he was dangerous is a carjacking that he had nothing to do with, and he can prove that through work records, where he was at the time, and there were also some fingerprints and DNA evidence that was suppressed." Further, Dershowitz argued, the court didn't give sufficient attention to Murphy's serious mental illness prior to his committing the murder.

Dershowitz said the jury made a finding that Murphy was dangerous, which was not in any way borne out by his subsequent behavior in prison. In more than two decades behind bars, he said, Murphy has exhibited no dangerous behavior.

Against this, Dershowitz points to Murphy's behavior in prison, becoming a religious Jew and helping fellow prisoners seeking to rehabilitate themselves.

"It would be just a simple act of vengeance to kill this man now, 20 years later, when he's a different person, and when the execution order was based on two obvious fallacies that now can be proved beyond any doubt."

Dershowitz has filed clemency paperwork on behalf of Murphy, who is one of at least two Jewish individuals on Texas's death row.

Murphy's case has also gained the support of other anti-death-penalty activists, notably Death Penalty Action and one of its project organizations, L'Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty. ("L'Chaim" is Hebrew for "To Life.") Cantor Michael Zoosman, a former Jewish prison chaplain and co-founder of L'Chaim!, has been corresponding with Murphy for years.

"Without betraying any confidence," Zoosman said, "the message has been consistent that he's said from Day One, which is that he is repentant for his crime. He's never made excuses. He continues not to make excuses. He's been reluctant to do any media interviews out of respect for the family (of the victim) and not wanting to put them through anything further...but he's doing so now because he truly feels that he can help others not to fall in the same path into which he's fallen and to not make the same mistakes that he has. And he's been doing just that with other inmates on death row and on death watch."

Zoosman said his organization has been trying to mobilize thousands of supporters across the state to write letters and cards to Governor Abbott on Murphy's behalf.

"It so happens that we just had the Jewish New Year," Zoosman said, "and this is a season of repentance, and so there's a tradition of New Year's greeting cards. So, we're getting people to offer New Year's greeting cards to the governor and ask for mercy and for acknowledgment of Jedidiah's sincere repentance for what he's done."

Still, the odds are against Abbott's intervention on Murphy's behalf. Abraham J. Bonowitz, director and co-founder of Death Penalty Action, said that Texas has executed nearly 600 individuals since 1982.

"There have been exactly five recommendations for clemency by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in all of that time, and two of those were rejected, Bonowitz said. "It’s hard not to be cynical in this space, but we believe in hope, miracles, and the power of prayer. That’s why we’re so focused on making sure Governor Abbott hears from people of strong faith from both within and from outside of his own circles."

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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