Murder In Jewish Law and United States Law

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death-penaltyYesterday we began learning about Homicide in our Criminal Law class at Loyola Law School. Our Criminal Law professor is world famous Laurie Levenson (she is in the news very often). She is an incredible teacher and a very successful practitioner. Studying Criminal Law in her class is a privilege. (Plus, she brings baked goodies for the class and sometimes stops at Schwartz’s Bakery to get some kosher goodies for the two Kosher observant Jews in the class. Pretty nice!)

After learning the building blocks of Criminal Law we began our unit in homicide.

One of the first homicide cases we read was a brutal murder of a 10 year old girl. The defendant offered no defense. He undeniably killed her in a brutal fashion, while intoxicated he took a knife to her, stabbing her about 60 times as he chased her around the house. The court decided that he could not get the death penalty.

Why? The court says that brutality of a murder is not a factor in considering whether a murder is in the 1st degree (incurring the death penalty). First degree murder requires “premeditation” and that is analyzed by looking at 3 factors. 1) planning 2) motive and 3) manner. In this case, the defendant did not plan, had no motive and the manner was not a methodical way of killing. It was random and unnecessary. The court sentenced him to life in prison and he escaped the death penalty.

Many of my co-students found this very difficult to swallow. Here we have a violent, brutal murder who will not get 1st degree murder. Some of my co-students wanted the murderer brutally killed in retribution.

In Jewish Law, murder and some other capital crimes are punishable by a death penalty. How does one “qualify” for the death penalty? A murderer must be warned by two witnesses that his offense will incur the death penalty. He must acknowledge their warning. Then he must commit the murder with 10 seconds. This approach to capital punishment reflects a basic tenet of Judaism.

Judaism is all about moral choices. Therefore, Judaism punishes the murderer who is making a clear, coherent choice. Only with fair warning and a true understanding of one’s actions are the murderer’s actions a clear indication of moral choice to commit murder.

In our Law School case, the fellow did not make a conscious choice. The 3 factors that demonstrate premeditation all demonstrate a choice by the murderer. Planning a murder shows that the murder truly understands what he is doing and is choosing his action of murder. Same for motive and manner. We need to see a conscious choice to take a life for murder to be in the 1st degree.

A drunk man who crazily kills for no reason is not a murderer in the 1st degree. He is a sociopath and must be locked up. But to take his life away via the death penalty requires more than just killing another. It requires a moral choice.

Judaism teaches us that our life is made up of little more than the moral choices we make. Our choices are who we are.

Choose wisely.

  • Hershey

    Well said.
    Is there a framework for prison in Judaism? Brutal-Murderer-of-10-Year-Old doesn’t qualify for exile either. So sociopath on the loose? Loophole here.
    “Planning a murder shows that the murder is truly understand”
    Semantics trouble.

  • Fixed the text, thanks. (I really need a proof-reader)

    I agree. Sociopaths would need to be isolated from society. I will look into this more and update when I have more info.

  • Elchanan

    excellent piece.
    it ought to be noted though, the halacha is clear in the gemara and poskim, t hat should a person have committed a crime, that on a techinicality of something like one witness or no warning, he would get off, we would apply the halacha of “konsin oso likippah” where in a matter of days he would be killed through a combination of starvation and the feeding of foods that would cause his stomach to implode. When the talmud said that it was rare for a person to be put to death through the court system directly (once in 7, or 70 years) that was simply a statement of the courts process. Many of those who were not put to death directly were put to death through “konsin oso likippah.” it is interesting that there does not seem to be any institution of a prison at all in halacha…
    any thoughts?

    • Good points:

      a) there is no indication how often, if at all, this method was used.

      b) the method does leave room for salvation from God, similar to a Sota, where it may not work, and if it did not work, I believe he went free.

      c) if the Rabbis implemented a form of vigilante justice like this, it was because it was absolutely necessary but that does not alter the point of the post, that is, in order to take a life through capital punishment, Judaism requires a formal moral choice.

      d) I have seen a couple of sources that indicate there was some sort of confinement type of prison in Jewish law.

      • Elchanan

        when you say that there is no indication how often this method was used, that is true in the sense that we do not know with what frequency these crimes were committed.
        we do however know what crimes it was the punishment for. See Ramban Rotzeah 4:8. where he lists some of them. They are all in the talmud. Sanhedrin 18:4 lists another kind of crime where konsin oso is used. It could be argues that Sanhedrim 18:5 is an example of imprisonment. it is not as clear as the others

        What is clear from his words there that one dies “as a result of the disease’s severity” (mikoved hacholi) that is its a physical malady thus it does not seem to be anything like the sotah, for it was simply feeding a person poison. The sotah was a spiritual form of death. This was simply starvation, and food that the digestive system cannot handle.

        also, Rambam writes there in 4:9
        (ט) ואין עושין דבר זה לשאר מחוייבי מיתת בית דין אלא אם נתחייב מיתה ממיתין אותו ואם אינו חייב מיתה פוטרין אותו שאע”פ שיש עונות חמורין משפיכות דמים אין בהן השחתת ישובו של עולם כשפיכות דמים אפילו ע”ז ואין צריך לומר עריות או חילול שבת אינן כשפיכות דמים שאלו העונות הן מעבירות שבין אדם להקב”ה אבל שפיכות דמים מעבירות שבינו לבין חבירו וכל מי שיש בידו עון זה הרי הוא רשע גמור ואין כל המצות שעשה כל ימיו שקולין כנגד עון זה ולא יצילו אותו מן הדין שנ’ אדם עשוק בדם נפש וגו’ צא ולמד מאחאב עובד ע”ז שהרי נאמר בו רק לא היה כאחאב וכשנסדרו עונותיו וזכיותיו לפני אלהי הרוחות לא נמצא עון שחייבו כלייה ולא היה שם דבר אחר ששקול כנגדו אלא דמי נבות שנ’ ותצא הרוח ותעמוד לפני ה’ זו רוח נבות ונאמר לה תפתה וגם תוכל והרי הוא הרשע לא הרג בידו אלא סיבב קל וחומר להורג בידו:
        in other words, there is no letting a person off for a capital offense on a technicality. we must take his life.

        Konsin Oso likippah is a halacha limoshe misinai. (see for example tos yom tov to Sanhedrin perek 9) It is far from vigilante justice.

        Enjoying the blog,

        Elchanan

        • I was referring to its frequency. You assumed that it happened often.

          As far as vigilante justice, the Beis Din was still arbitrarily decided whether it was a murderer getting off on a technicality or inconclusive evidence. Thus, decided to invoke the HLMS of Beis Kippa is still a moderate form of vigilante justice.

  • Good points:

    a) there is no indication how often, if at all, this method was used.

    b) the method does leave room for salvation from God, similar to a Sota, where it may not work, and if it did not work, I believe he went free.

    c) if the Rabbis implemented a form of vigilante justice like this, it was because it was absolutely necessary but that does not alter the point of the post, that is, in order to take a life through capital punishment, Judaism requires a formal moral choice.

    d) I have seen a couple of sources that indicate there was some sort of confinement type of prison in Jewish law.

    • Elchanan

      when you say that there is no indication how often this method was used, that is true in the sense that we do not know with what frequency these crimes were committed.
      we do however know what crimes it was the punishment for. See Ramban Rotzeah 4:8. where he lists some of them. They are all in the talmud. Sanhedrin 18:4 lists another kind of crime where konsin oso is used. It could be argues that Sanhedrim 18:5 is an example of imprisonment. it is not as clear as the others

      What is clear from his words there that one dies “as a result of the disease’s severity” (mikoved hacholi) that is its a physical malady thus it does not seem to be anything like the sotah, for it was simply feeding a person poison. The sotah was a spiritual form of death. This was simply starvation, and food that the digestive system cannot handle.

      also, Rambam writes there in 4:9
      (ט) ואין עושין דבר זה לשאר מחוייבי מיתת בית דין אלא אם נתחייב מיתה ממיתין אותו ואם אינו חייב מיתה פוטרין אותו שאע”פ שיש עונות חמורין משפיכות דמים אין בהן השחתת ישובו של עולם כשפיכות דמים אפילו ע”ז ואין צריך לומר עריות או חילול שבת אינן כשפיכות דמים שאלו העונות הן מעבירות שבין אדם להקב”ה אבל שפיכות דמים מעבירות שבינו לבין חבירו וכל מי שיש בידו עון זה הרי הוא רשע גמור ואין כל המצות שעשה כל ימיו שקולין כנגד עון זה ולא יצילו אותו מן הדין שנ’ אדם עשוק בדם נפש וגו’ צא ולמד מאחאב עובד ע”ז שהרי נאמר בו רק לא היה כאחאב וכשנסדרו עונותיו וזכיותיו לפני אלהי הרוחות לא נמצא עון שחייבו כלייה ולא היה שם דבר אחר ששקול כנגדו אלא דמי נבות שנ’ ותצא הרוח ותעמוד לפני ה’ זו רוח נבות ונאמר לה תפתה וגם תוכל והרי הוא הרשע לא הרג בידו אלא סיבב קל וחומר להורג בידו:
      in other words, there is no letting a person off for a capital offense on a technicality. we must take his life.

      Konsin Oso likippah is a halacha limoshe misinai. (see for example tos yom tov to Sanhedrin perek 9) It is far from vigilante justice.

      Enjoying the blog,

      Elchanan

      • I was referring to its frequency. You assumed that it happened often.

        As far as vigilante justice, the Beis Din was still arbitrarily decided whether it was a murderer getting off on a technicality or inconclusive evidence. Thus, decided to invoke the HLMS of Beis Kippa is still a moderate form of vigilante justice.

  • Elchanan

    the beis din did not decide it any more than they decide to impose the death penalty.
    the criteria for kippah are as rigid as any other halachic criteria