Several places in the Talmud discuss the case of one murder committed by multiple hands. Maimonides gathers together these opinions in forming his own, which he shares in the “Laws of Murder” in his magnum opus, the Mishnah Torah. There are fourteen hefty chapters in this book because Maimonides is dealing with one of the most significant crimes in the Torah, the taking of a life.
“If ten people strike one person with ten different stick and he dies, they are all not held liable for execution by the court." The law applies whether or not they struck him one after the other or they struck him at the same time. These laws are sourced in Leviticus 24:17, ‘If one strikes any person mortally, he should be put to death;’ through implication we learn that death is not required unless one person alone is entirely accountable for the person’s death. The same law applies if two people push a colleague into the water and hold him there or several people are together and an arrow leaves them and kills someone, none is held liable.” (4:6)
This question of accountability in the case of a murder is not easy to resolve. On the one hand, murdering someone is a capital offense and treated with the full weight of Jewish law during times of Jewish sovereignty. On the other hand, in a case where multiple people are involved, it is near impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any one individual is responsible.
Maimonides does delineate a case with a different outcome, however. “A different ruling is rendered in the following instance. Ten people threw stones at one person, one after the other. None of the stones was sufficiently heavy enough to cause death. Afterwards, another person cast a heavy stone that could cause death. The last person who threw the stone should be executed.”[4:7]
All things being equal, Jewish law does not implicate any one individual in the collective murder of one person. All bear the shame, but none bears the actual liability. When all things are not equal – one person has a much heavier stone than the others – the one who casts the final death blow is held responsible, even if everyone participated in this crime.
I pondered this last week for several days after the last police officer was acquitted in the Freddy Gray case that took place last year in Baltimore. Remember the case? On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police officers for possession of an illegal switchblade. He died 7 days later. When Gray was transported in a police van after his arrest, he allegedly suffered a coma and was said to have died because of spinal injuries. How did this man die?
The six officers involved were suspended with pay as an investigation ensued. Charges of homicide were waged against the police officers. Each case was presented separately in court. Last week, on July 27th, all the charges were dropped. The case garnered particular attention because Gray’s death was followed by days of violent protests and looting, especially on April 27th, 2015, the day of Freddie’s funeral. A state of emergency was declared in Maryland by the governor, and the National Guard was finally brought it to bring the city to order. It was a frightening and tense time and surfaced many of this country’s fears about police officers, about vigilante justice, about race.
After all the charges were dropped, when many expected the protests to resurface with an even more ferocious aggression, the streets were quiet. Most of the officers who were convicted are back at work. But all is not normal. There have been heated calls for criminal justice reform, for a more independent investigation, for police reforms. The Executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, Chuck Wexler, was cited in The New York Times with this pessimistic end note: “We’re nowhere.” He shared the disappointment many feel: “Both sides walk away from this feeling like they didn’t get justice – the people who were concerned about Freddie Gray, and the people who are concerned about cops doing their job.”
If Maimonides had been the judge, the outcome would likely have been the same. No one person could be indicted beyond a reasonable doubt with taking Gray’s life. But collectively, there is no doubt that something terrible happened in that van that day that reminds us to be vigilant in upholding the sacredness of every life. “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” we will soon read in Deuteronomy 16:20. We repeat the word justice, the commentators tell us, for all kinds of reasons: for emphasis, for additional vigilance, for a call to action. But perhaps we also read it twice because there is earthly justice and heavenly justice. There are people who get away with crimes because we simply cannot prosecute them, but it does not mean that they didn’t happen. Justice somewhere, at some time must be served.