Torah: Tookie’s Execution Was A Miscarriage of Justice


Tookie should not have been executed.

He may have been a bad man, but he was done in by bad law.

Tookie should not have been executed by the State of California, because his conviction was based on evidence that runs afoul of decency and the laws of the Torah itself. He may have deserved to die, and there may even be poetic justice in that it was injustice that took the life of an unjust man. But his conviction was also a breach of the law – the expectations of our Torah.

Tookie was not executed because he may have contributed, directly and otherwise, to the deaths of hundreds of people. He was convicted for the deaths of four people. The jury convicted him on nothing stronger than the testimony of convicted felons, some of the worst slime known to man. Regarding three of the victims, the testimony was not even about the murder, but about Tookie bragging in jail about his having committed the murders. As I understand it, halacha is quite clear about where the evidential bar must be set in Noachide law. The single witness (to the deed, not to an incident of jailhouse braggadocio) must be observant of the Seven Noachide laws. So says the Chazon Ish. (Avodas Kochavim 69:3 s.v veha.). In Bava Kama (10:15 s.v. v’nireh d’im), he modifies this considerably, taking into account that most of the non-Jewish world is far from perfect regarding a number of the seven laws. The minimum he sets, however, is observance of laws that the majority of people do adhere to: strictures about theft and murder. Those whose testimony doomed Tookie struck out on both counts.

I reject the notion that capital punishment is inherently barbaric and inhumane. The most vocal opponents of the death penalty as completely unjustifiable are the heads of the EU. It is hard to find a more convincing argument in support of court-mandated executions.

I reject the notion that a condemned prisoner can “redeem” himself in any manner or form. The death penalty, once accepted by a given society, is a statement that there are some crimes that simply revoke a person’s license to live. It takes into account the fact that humans can and do change, and rejects that as sufficient to continue existence in the company of civilized humanity. The champions of redemption were most prominently avatars of the entertainment industry. It is hard to find a more convincing argument to reject it, than that is endorsed by the single group least endowed with education, intelligence, stability, or morality. (I specific exclude Mike Farrell, whom I know, respect, and profoundly disagree with.)

Tookie went to his execution maintaining his innocence. I am not ready to smugly declare him wrong. I don’t doubt that he was fully capable of those murders. So were his accusers; so were thousands of Crips, and thousands of Bloods, and thousands of other Angelenos.

In our rush to differ with those who claim that the death penalty is never justified (and heterodox rabbis who never lose an opportunity to proclaim to the world that Judaism stands for the polar opposite position of what the Torah says), we ought not be guilty of what we charge our opponents of doing: ignoring the Torah. The Torah does allow for taking life. It also sets standards of evidence. The evidence is there (as far as I see it) that these standards were not met.

We should not be cheering for something the Torah does not endorse.

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6 Responses

  1. bvw says:

    I’m wondering how the Halacha regarding capital trials under Noahide laws is impacted by California’s two-stage trial system. As I understand, in the first stage guilt is determined without reference to the penalty. Then once found guilty, a second trial stage is held with different (and looser) rules of testimony and evidence whereby the penalty is determined.

  2. Nachum says:

    In 1981, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l wrote a letter to the then governor of New York stating the Orthodox position on capital punishment (printed in Igros Moshe Ch.M. 2:68). He writes that a society has the right to execute criminals in order to protect itself from lawlessness even without following the normal guidelines of Halacha (i.e. eye-witnesses, hasra, semicha, the Bais Hamikdash, etc.). According to Rav Moshe then, the state of California has the right to execute criminals even without the normal requirement of one eye-witness (in the case of Bnei Noach). If the state felt that executing Tookie Williams was necessary for *hatzlas hamadina* then according to Rav Moshe, it has the halachic right.

  3. Milchemet Mitzvah says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    That was a phenominal post that addressed each of the issues quite thorougly. The ONLY clarification that might need to be made, is that the argument is NOT whether he should/should not have been executed according to Torah law, because we fundamentally agree that when it comes to non-Jews and to Jews, with limts, we say “Dina d’malchusa Dina”. HOWEVER, what the guidelines of our Mesora can dictate for us is how much we should support a particular policy and in this case you offer a flawless argument that we should not support it. I find myself guilty of the offense of “rushing to counter” hetero dox Rabbis and I believe that you clearly demonstrated why not to.

  4. Stephen B. Rozen says:

    The problems mentioned by Rabbi Adlerstein in this case are not unique to capital cases, but rather show some of the problems in the U.S. legal system (I’m not advocating that there is necessarily any better system).

    The U.S. legal system is very frequently involved in technicalities and procedure — as a method of achieving justice — but many times adhering to these technical procedures even when they damage the justice we strive to reach.

    But how is this case any different from others, where one might be convicted and imprisoned, possibly for decades, only to be found innocent, and released, later on? Some (not myself) would advocate that spending 20-30 years in a maximum security prison (we’ve all heard the horror stories of what goes on there…) is worse than receiving the death penalty. The “only” difference, and I’m not saying it is a small one, is that the death penalty is irreversable. But time spent in jail is still time spent in jail — be it a week, a year or 20 to 30 of them.

    Thus, the problem seems to be in *how* and *based upon what* we convict our suspected criminals. Judaism teaches us that “din prutah k’din me’ah” (or rather loosely: you should not be more careful with someone/something just because it is more valuable) — we cannot accept that those accused of “lesser” crimes should be easier to convict and that those accused of more “heinous” crimes should be harder to convict, simply because the punishment might be greater (in this case, the death penalty).

    If we have a problem, and I believe we do, then it needs to be taken care of system-wide.

    But I am unwilling to accept these arguments only when death row is about to create an occupancy. Doing so only serves to undermine the whole legal system. Until we are able to refine it, we must abide by it. The alternative is pure chaos.

  5. DovBear says:

    This is the best thing I have ever read on Cross Currents. I enjoyed every word. Well done.

  6. Holy Hyrax says:

    Since when do non-Jewish nations need to adhere to what the Torah says? And if you are arguing that it is against the Noahide laws, how many people, let alone nations know what on earth the Noahide laws are? How many of them know what the standard of evidence should be according to the Noahhide laws are? I’m sure the vast majority of Jews don’t even know. These kind of arguments, saying there was a breach of the Torah law, when speaking about non-Jewish laws and courts tend to border on silly.