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Should Karla Have Been Executed?
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Should Karla Have Been Executed?

by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz *

The execution of Karla Faye Tucker polarized public opinion around the world. Tucker, a former prostitute and drug addict, murdered two people in 1983 with a pickaxe. In prison, Tucker became a born again Christian, got her high school equivalency diploma, and eventually married the prison chaplain. Because of her dramatic transformation on death row, many, including supporters of the death penalty, called for her sentence to be commuted. After all her appeals were rejected, Tucker was executed by lethal injection. Her execution raises a difficult question: Should a criminal who repents be executed for her crimes?

Both the Bible and the Talmud are clear that repentance changes divine judgement. The prophet Ezekiel (18:21-23) writes: "But if the wicked will turn from all the sins which he has committed, and keep all my statutes...he shall surely live, and shall not die...Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? Says the Lord, God; and not rather that he should return from his ways and live?". The Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) says that when a person repents, all previous sins are forgotten by God. Repentance has the ability to erase one's sins before God.

While repentance can reverse divine judgement, it has less influence on human judgement. There are instances where penalties are changed or waived in order to facilitate repentance (Baba Kamma 66b; Rambam Gezielah 1:13). However, the Talmud (Makkot 13b) states that a criminal guilty of a capital crime is put to death, even if they have repented. Considering that in the divine court, a repentant person "shall surely live, and shall not die", why don't human courts follow God's example and grant clemency to repentant criminals?

Four answers are given to this question. Some say (Maharal, Derech Chaim chapter 4) that there is a fundamental distinction between divine justice and mundane, human justice. Divine justice is based on a person's relationship with God. If a person has repaired his relationship with God through repentance, than he will be forgiven by God for his sins. In human courts, justice is based solely on past actions; therefore, no amount of repentance can change what has already been done.

Another answer (Abrabanel Exodus 7:3) focuses on a deficiency in the murderer's repentance. Repentance for sins between man and his fellow man is not complete until the person wronged has forgiven the criminal for his sin (Yoma 85b). In a case of murder, it is impossible to do complete repentance, because it is impossible to receive forgiveness from the victim; the forgiveness of the victim's family is not enough. Considering this, it is impossible for a murderer to do complete repentance, and be forgiven.

Others argue (Nodah BeYehuda OC I:35) that if we would allow repentant killers to avoid the death penalty, then everyone on death row would repent, and the death penalty would never be used. Without the death penalty, there would be less to deter future murders. In order to deter future murders from plaguing the community, we must execute all murderers, even if they have repented.

Another answer given (cited in Hegyonei Halacha, vol. I page 147) is that it is impossible to know whether the criminal has sincerely repented. The criminal has good reason to fake repentance in order to avoid being executed. It is impossible for another person to know if the murderer is a genuine penitent, or just afraid of execution. Only God knows what is in a person's heart, and therefore only God can accept repentance.

In the Jewish court system, the death penalty was exceedingly rare (Makkot 7a). However, when someone was sentenced to death, they would not be freed if they repented. Because of concerns about deterring other criminals, questions about the sincerity, thoroughness and relevance of the criminal's repentance, human courts cannot block an execution because of repentance. However, in God's eyes, one who repents is as if she has gotten a "new heart and new spirit" (Ezekiel 18:31) and started a new life.

Reprinted with permission of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz


*) Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, Quebec. He writes a column on Jewish Law for the Canadian Jewish News, and writes a column and hosts an internet Jewish study group for the Microsoft Network. He is a member of the executive board of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Vice President of the Montreal Board of Jewish Ministers, and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Educational Council of Montreal and Hillel-Jewish Students Center of Montreal. He recieved his ordination from Yeshiva University, where he was a fellow of the Gruss Kollel Elyon. He has a M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and a M.A. in Education from Adelphi University.

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