We’ve looked at the fact that the death penalty is commanded by God throughout the Bible (Old and New Testaments), and that the story of the woman taken in idolatry does not undermine capital punishment, but in fact supports it. We’ve also seen that our Saviour’s teachings in Matthew 5 (the Sermon on the Mount) are not talking about a governmental penal system, and so do not contradict the Biblical instructions.
In this post, I’d like to look at some of the safeguards God told His people to use to protect against abuses and injustice. Along the way, we’ll look at some examples of injustice in recent years, and how following God’s safeguards would have affected those cases.
Safeguard #1 — Multiple Witnesses
6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
We looked at this passage once before. This is one of the most important safeguards. It makes any evidence inadmissible which is not corroborated by two or three witnesses. A false conviction could really only happen in the case of a conspiracy. There would never be a conviction of which this could be said:
There was no forensic evidence, no fingerprints, no independent witnesses, yet both women were convicted of arson with intent to endanger life.
Safeguard #2 — Witness Reality Check
7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.
When God established a penal system, capital punishment was by stoning, and the witnesses who testified against the perpetrator were required to cast the first stones.
Many in Britain will remember Professor Roy Meadows. He was horribly careless in his “expert testimony.” He appallingly testified to convict Sally Clark for murder using an unsourced statistic. His cavalier testimony was a major contributing factor to her death.
Stefan Kiszko and his family were destroyed in part by the testimony of teenage girls who lied for a “laugh” and “never thought it would go that far.”
Would this professor, these girls, have had such a callous disregard for the seriousness of their testimony if they had to actually cast the first stones, to actually help put someone to death based on their statements? The “witnesses first” requirement would prevent many miscarriages of justice. It would force witnesses to come face to face with the human reality of a destroyed life. Our current system hides the destroyed life off in a prison somewhere, while academics, teenagers, and other irresponsible people go on with their comfortable lives, not having to think about the impact of casual testimony.
Safeguard #3 — Dealing with Perjury
16 If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong;
17 Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days;
18 And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother;
19 Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.
20 And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you.
When God established a penal system, perjury was dealt with very strictly. Any perjury bore the same penalty as the crime of which a person was accused. If you committed perjury in a capital case, you would receive the death penalty.
Some horrible miscarriages of justice have come in cases where the police thought they had found the criminal, and lied or hid evidence to try to strengthen the case. If they risked the same penalty as the alleged criminal faced, few would perjure themselves in this way.
In another case, because she “didn’t like him,” a woman made false allegations against David Carrington-Jones, who spent almost seven years behind bars. She received a police caution when her crime was discovered.
The principle of equal penalty for perjury applied to all crimes. It is a strong deterrent in capital cases. Few would lie if they risk death by doing so. Many miscarriages of justice would be averted (in capital cases or otherwise) if a penal system treated perjury as seriously as God does.
Safeguard #4 — Public and Corporate
35 And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.
36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses.
The God-ordained penal code in the Old Testament required public executions involving the whole congregation.
We tend to view public executions as barbaric, but this served important purposes.
- No secret executions. There was to be no sending people off to a death camp or a secret location to execute them. Everyone was fully aware of what was happening.
- No “delayed witnesses.” If someone knew a person was innocent, there would be plenty of opportunity to come forward — he would know exactly what was happening, since all the people were involved, and could give his testimony before it was too late. There would be no exoneration by a previously unknown witness after it was too late.
- The death penalty was in the hands of the people, never in the hands of a despotic ruler.
Finally, and perhaps most important, a public execution is an ugly thing. God wanted it to be so. No decent person would want to throw those stones. God wanted His people to hate executions — and to hate the crimes that forced them. A great safeguard against unjust punishments is to make the punishment repulsive to the people who must carry it out. Then, they will only do it if they really have to.
God commanded the death penalty — but He put in place stringent safeguards to protect against miscarriages of justice. Those safeguards made it impossible to convict anyone of some crimes — there would not be enough evidence. This required trusting the Lord to deal with the situation — we see this illustrated in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Capital punishment was to take place only when the Biblical guidelines could be met. As we’ve seen in some of the examples I’ve given, if the Biblical guidelines were followed today there would be fewer miscarriages of justice.