Reagan, Arguing for Capital Punishment, Discusses the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Sixth Commandment

April 20, 1967

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Reagan, Arguing for Capital Punishment, Discusses the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Sixth Commandment
Autograph Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 1477

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      As Aaron C. Mitchell became, on April 12, 1967, the 501st person executed in California since 1891, a crowd of anti-capital punishment protesters gathered outside the prison gate. Burning candles and carrying signs, they sang, prayed, and heaped opprobrium upon Governor Reagan, whom they believed should have commuted the cop killer’s sentence. Had Mitchell not been a poor, uneducated African-American, they argued, he would not have gone to the gas chamber. Reagan felt otherwise: “If the law is to be changed,” he said, “the people should make the change. But they should not ask someone, either the judge, the jury or governor, to go in contravention of the law while the law remains on the books and to take a stand over and above the law.” And the law had been, with regard to Mitchell, laid down again and again and again. Governor Brown – Reagan’s predecessor – presided over Mitchell’s clemency hearing, and declared that if ever there was a case of first degree murder, this was it: a conclusion affirmed twice by the State Supreme Court, twice by the U.S. District Court of Appeals, once by the U.S. Circuit Court and twice by the U.S. Supreme Court. But it was at Reagan, personally, to whom the protesters directed their vitriol. It wasn’t enough, for instance, that their signs read “Thou Shalt Not Kill” – some also said, “Ronald Reagan – No Academy Award for Legal Murder!” Perhaps it was something along those lines, then, which prompted Reagan’s reply to the anti-capital punishment opponent he answers here…

      I believe your cruel attempt at humor I assume you sent equally humorous skits to each of the justices of the Calif. & U.S. Supreme Courts, the trial judges, juries and my predecessor. Incidentally, with regard to your reference to the ten commandments the bible was interpreted from the ancient Hebrew language. Leading Hebrew scholars say the literal translation of that particular commandment is; "Thou shalt not murder." This is the same Old Testament that calls for "An eye for an eye."

      Reagan was a religious man, and quite correct that it was the King James Version of the Bible, and not the Torah, which rendered the 6th commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, instead of the more accurate “Thou shalt not murder.” It was in fact his executive prerogative in regard to murder, that Reagan found to be most difficult aspect of his governorship; no part of the job, he confessed, was approached more prayerfully.

      Autograph Letter Signed (“R.R”), as Governor, 1 page, quarto, no place, no date [April 20, 1967]. To Laurence Russell Walton in Universal City, California. Being a draft to be typewritten.
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