The Rabbi Who Visited Death Row
Rabbi Chaim Richter and I met on death row during my second year of isolation in a maximum-security women’s prison in the Florida Everglades. I was the only woman on death row at the time.
Having been wrongfully convicted in the murder of two police officers, I remained under sentence of death for five years until 1981, when the Supreme Court of Florida changed my sentence from death to life imprisonment. After twelve more years of imprisonment, I won my federal habeas corpus and the federal district court overturned my case. Rabbi Richter visited, counseled, and befriended me throughout those long years. Our relationship continues today.
Five years after my release, the rabbi officiated at my friend’s funeral. I rode with him to the reception afterward. What a strange feeling to be riding in a car with the very same rabbi who visited with me on death row.
“I remember when I first went to see you,” he told me, as we drove along I-95, the wind blowing in our faces. “The prison chaplain asked me how I felt about the death penalty—would I have a problem visiting with a woman on death row? I accepted the assignment without hesitation.”
A Welcome Visitor
Back when we first met, Rabbi Richter had already been visiting Broward Correctional Institution for about five months, since its opening in April 1977. The newly built facility was originally intended for men but ended up housing women instead. In those days, more and more women were finding themselves in the system and ultimately in prison. Visiting the prison was a part of his outreach program.
After accepting the assignment by the prison chaplain to visit a Jewish woman on death row, he told me he wondered: “How could I relate to someone on death row? What would her needs be?” He said he thought of Ethel Rosenberg and how she and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, were convicted of being spies during World War II and then executed. “Would this woman be executed too?” he asked himself. “What would one say to a person on death row? How long had she been in isolation? Would she be sane?”
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Jacobs, Sonia. 2014. The Rabbi Who Visited Death Row. Tikkun 29(4): 15.