Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois recently signed a law that abolished the death penalty in that state. According to an enlightening article in the Chicago Tribune, “It wasn’t the question of morality but the question of accuracy that led state to abolish capital punishment.” Apparently, it used to be only those who morally opposed the death penalty who were the sole supporters of its abrogation. However, after several wrongful convictions were publicized, even those who morally supported capital punishment had a reason to oppose it: a concern that innocent people were being put to death.
The concern for accuracy in capital punishment is by no means foreign to Jewish jurisprudence. Thirty years ago Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked by an American government official (see the comments for a discussion regarding who it was) for an explanation of the Jewish view of capital punishment. In his response (Igros Moshe, Chosen Mishpat, vol. 2, § 68), Rabbi Feinstein emphasized two points. First, unlike secular governments, the Torah does not impose the death penalty as a means of revenge or keeping the peace through fear. For that, we trust that God will do as He sees fit. Rather, capital punishment serves an educational purpose: it teaches us which transgressions are the most serious.
Furthermore, explains Rabbi Feinstein, the Torah shows concern for human life by ensuring that capital punishment is only imposed after satisfying numerous procedural safeguards. Some examples of the requirements that must be met before one can be punished with death are: a Beis Din whose judges have received Semicha (which is only bestowed upon great and wise men); a quorum of 23 judges; three rows of knowledgeable men must sit before the court and offer any arguments in favor of the accused; two purely impartial witnesses; the witnesses must have warned the accused, and he must have acknowledged the warning; and finally, capital punishment could only be imposed when the Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges sat in the Beis Hamikdash (the Temple). As a result, throughout Jewish history, the death penalty was rarely imposed (see Makkos 7a)––not because of any moral opposition to it, but because of a concern for accuracy.
For a fascinating discussion of criminal punishment in Jewish law and Western legal systems, see generally Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein (Chief Rabbi of South Africa), Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society 223-333 (Feldheim Publishers 2006).