The Rights of the Accused

Long before there was the U.S. Bill of Rights, there were powerful protections on the accused. The Biblical punishments could be very harsh at times, but there were some powerful checks as well.

Deuteronomy 19:

15 A single witness may not testify against another person for any trespass or sin that he commits. A matter may be legally established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses.

16 If a false witness testifies against another person and accuses him of a crime,

17 then both parties to the controversy must stand before the LORD, that is, before the priests and judges who will be in office in those days.

18 The judges will thoroughly investigate the matter, and if the witness should prove to be false and to have given false testimony against the accused,

19 you must do to him what he had intended to do to the accused. In this way you will purge evil from among you.

20 The rest of the people will hear and become afraid to keep doing such evil among you.

21 You must not show pity; the principle will be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot.

(NET Bible®)

No single police officer or other witness would be able to convict on just his own word under this standard. It requires at least two witnesses.

And look at the penalty for perjury! The penalty for false accusation is the same as for the crime in question. This would be quite a disincentive against corruption for criminal matters. It would also be quite a disincentive in civil matters as well if we applied this idea to frivolous lawsuits and naming defendants who are not truly at fault but merely have deep pockets.

Now take a look at this provision:

Deuteronomy 16:

18 You must appoint judges and civil servants for each tribe in all your villages that the LORD your God is giving you, and they must judge the people fairly.

19 You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous.

20 You must pursue justice alone so that you may live and inherit the land the LORD your God is giving you.

(NET Bible®)

Look at verse 19: it says that bribes “distort the words of the righteous.” So, should we allow bribing witnesses?

We do currently. It’s called “plea bargaining.” An offer of a reduced sentence in return for testifying against someone else is an offer of great monetary value! I would much rather go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt than to spend a year in prison. Consider also, that plea bargains are often made with witnesses who aren’t all that righteous. Expect greater distortion.

And, of course, asking the accused to testify against himself in return for a lesser charge is also inherently dishonest. It also makes a sad joke of the Fifth Amendment. A greater charge if you don’t plead guilty is by definition a punishment for not testifying against yourself!