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How murder trials handled in ancient Jewish society

It is the year 783 BCE or 2977 on the Hebrew calendar. Uzziah is king of Judah. It is 30 years before the founding of Rome, 779 years prior to the birth of Jesus, 1,353 years before Mohammed’s birth, and 1,421 years prior to the Arab conquest of Jerusalem.

On a field outside the Jewish city of Hebron, a group of farmers see a man with a knife chasing another man. The two men enter a house, and after a short while the man with the knife emerges, his clothing covered with blood. The farmers arrive and seize the man. The first man is found dead in the house.

A trial is held, and the man is found innocent. How did that happen and why?

The purpose of this essay is to describe how a murder trial was conducted almost 3,000 years ago, under Jewish law, and to suggest areas for reflection concerning the contemporary debate about capital punishment in America and New Hampshire.

Ancient Jews believed that trials should be conducted according to God’s laws, as derived from the Torah. It was obligatory that a convicted murderer should be executed, but ironically, the purpose of a trial was to find a defendant innocent.

A court of 23 rabbis, acting as both prosecution and defense, conducted a trial. There were no lawyers. They discussed the facts and laws of the case amongst themselves.

A person could be convicted of capital murder only if two eyewitnesses simultaneously saw the defendant actually commit the killing. Circumstantial evidence was inadmissible in a murder trial. In the example described, an innocent verdict would have been reached because no eyewitness actually saw the crime occur. The other evidence was circumstantial and could not be used. How do you know there was not a third person in the house?

Also, a defendant would have to be warned not to commit an act for which the death penalty applies: murder, idolatry, or certain forms of adultery. Also, the defendant would have to acknowledge the warning. Absent a warning and acknowledgment, a guilty verdict is not possible.

A conviction required a majority vote of two. A vote of 12 innocent and 11 guilty frees the defendant. A vote of 12 guilty and 11 innocent meant that two more judges would be added as the trial continues. If no verdict was reached, additional judges would be added. A defendant would be freed if no verdict were reached by the time the number of judges reaches 71.

After deliberations, an actual vote would be taken the day after deliberations ended in order for emotions to settle down. A defendant had further protection in that disciples of the judges could address the court if they had reasons for acquittal, but not if they had reasons for conviction.

Judges were obligated to try to vote on the basis of personal reasoning and not on arguments of other judges. Assumptions were not allowed in decision-making. They believed that the taking of a life should be done only in the rarest of circumstances.

What I find most interesting is that when all 23 judges voted guilty, a defendant would be freed. The idea behind that is that such a decision indicated that not all possible reasons for acquittal had been considered.

Could the trial be “gamed” by a judge deliberately voting guilty in order to reach 23 guilty votes, thereby freeing a defendant he considered innocent? Yes, but it was believed, in that case, God would punish the defendant in the future or wanted him freed.

After a verdict of innocence, a defendant could not be tried again on the basis of new evidence. There was no double jeopardy.

Although adultery was punished by stoning, I cannot imagine it ever to have happened because ancient Hebrews had a vastly different concept of adultery than people today. Conviction for adultery would have been harder to prove than even murder for a number of technical reasons beyond the scope of this essay.

How often was capital punishment applied? One source from antiquity said it occurred once every seven years. Another rabbinic source said that, if a murder conviction occurred more than once in as 70-year period, the court was considered “blood-thirsty.”

My main source for this essay is a 12th-century commentary on Jewish law, “Sefar Hachinuch” by an unknown author, written in Spain. The author referenced the writings of leading contemporaneous commentators, including the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, and the most astute biblical exegete, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman. Descriptions of trial proceedings are also based on earlier rabbinic and Talmudic sources predating “Sefer Hachinuch,” some from 1,600 years earlier.

Rick Sirvint lives in Rindge.

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