February 5, 2017

Controversy Minyan Visited by West Orange Chief of Police

Jordan Mayor ‘18

With the new Tefilah minyans finally starting to get going, the Controversy minyan run by juniors Sam Russo and Carly Mast decided to offer its students an outside perspective on the death penalty.
On Tuesday, December 13, the minyan’s leaders invited West Orange Chief of Police James P. Abbott to come in and speak to students.
The Controversy minyan, a minyan that learns about a topic and then debates it, had finished its discussion of Israeli settlements the week prior and was beginning the next subject, the death penalty.
“The idea was that to begin our next segment we would bring in someone who had
experience with the matter,” Russo said. “This would hopefully increase engagement and also provide a strong knowledge base for the conversations we would have going forward.”
Abbott was brought in to start the conversation on the death penalty because he has had significant experience with and exposure to the issue. Through his involvement as an executive in the police force, he was recruited to serve on panels devoted to the discussion of the death penalty.
Abbott discussed his many admirable achievements, such as being invited to attend the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva, Switzerland, but his greatest one was serving on the committee in the New Jersey Legislature that ended the penalty’s use in the state.
After speaking to students about his experiences, he made it clear his priority was to field and answer questions.
“Whenever I come to speak to a group, the most important thing to me is to take questions,” he said. “That way I am able to specifically cover the aspects you are interested in.”
Students asked him a range of questions varying from, “How many people served on the committee with you?” to “What were some of the testimonies from victims’ relatives like?”
Abbott admitted to it being a long time ago and said he did not remember specific numbers. Though he was unable to remember small details, he did express that, in his experiences, the death row process is “grueling and divisive for victims’ families.
“Many people ask why the process can not be expedited to decrease the level of pain it causes for families,” he added, “but the way the appeals process and our constitution work does not allow for that to happen.”
One of the aspects students felt was most interesting about Abbott’s visit was that his personal sentiment toward the death penalty had changed over time. At first, Abbott was in support of the death penalty, but after being a part of the committee and hearing testimonies, his opinion shifted.
Sophomore Aaron Lavitsky was especially intrigued by this and asked him why he initially supported the penalty, to which Abbott replied that he has always believed in retribution for crimes and felt at the time that the death penalty in certain circumstances could be an appropriate punishment. He included that he still feels this way, but now recognizes that the divisiveness and pain the process can cause for victims’ families is enough of a reason to ban it.
The meeting was one that almost all of the students involved seem to enjoy and opened up the conversation to a much broader and enlightened perspective. Considering the success it was, the Controversy minyan hopes to bring in more people going forward to accomplish a similar goal.

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