The riveting financial news of the past month
has been the trial of Conrad Black; accused of fraud, racketeering, money
laundering and obstruction of justice during his tenure as CEO of Hollinger
Inc. Unfortunately our society seems to ‘enjoy’ the minutiae of
details as high powered people are humbled and humiliated. While I am unaware
of any restrictions on reporting of Jewish judicial proceedings – apart from
the general laws of lashon hara –
one of the bedrocks of Jewish judicial proceedings is the dignity given to the
convicted, not to mention the merely accused.
In an unbelievable Talmudic interpretation
the Rabbis assert that the verse “you shall love your neighbor as
yourself” is said to be referring to a convicted criminal even one
deserving of death. “Choose for him a good death” the rabbis
demand. While western court systems do show much dignity to the convicted, our
media outlets are generally less concerned with such ethical demands.
There are however numerous areas where
western and Jewish court procedures diverge. The most relevant is admissibility
of testimony. Prosecutors in North America
will often offer plea bargain deals to lesser felons, who in exchange for
testimony against others will receive a lesser sentence. Such testimony will
then be used to convict an even greater felon. David Radler, Mr. Black’s
long time business associate, who himself is accused of illegally diverting
funds, has “agreed to cooperate” with the prosecution and will
undoubtedly receive a lighter sentence.
Jewish law is clear that those who violate
the many monetary mitzvot of the Torah
are invalidated from being witnesses. Furthermore accepting testimony from
those who have a personal stake in their own testimony is problematic. That is
the essence of a plea bargain making it an unacceptable tool in the hands of
There are myriads of cases where
informants with checkered pasts have been shown to lie under oath in a court of
law. The western justice system has yet to learn the fundamental truth that
those who have a history of illicit activities, absent evidence of a change in
lifestyle, can not be trusted in a court of law, period. Taking such an
approach would spare us the spectacle of accepting and relying on testimony of
known liars, cheats and even murderers.
While the testimony of former colleagues
is acceptable in Jewish law it is sad to see former close friends become bitter
enemies when they are pitted on opposite sides of the court room. Perhaps this
is the basis of the Torah forbidding relatives (first cousins and closer) from
testifying. It seems to be more than mere fear that relatives might lie; even
Moshe Rabbeinu and his brother Aaron are disqualified. Rather the Torah did not
want families torn apart. Imagine what it would do to a family if one’s
testimony was the basis of his brother being sentenced to death or even just to
pay a fine. Sometimes even justice must take a back seat.
Interestingly enough, the Talmud records
an opinion (not accepted in practice) that close friends are also disqualified.
Such testimony is liable to strain a friendship beyond repair.
Another difference in Conrad Black’s
trial and a Jewish court is the makeup of the jury. Western jurisprudence
deems judgment of one’s peers to be the ideal (though in practice that is
rarely the case – the jurors selected for the Black trial are not a cross
section of high flying CEO’s). The Beit
din system however has no separate jury – the judges, who must
meet exacting standards of intellectual and moral achievement, serve as the
jury. Rendering serious judicial decisions requires a special expertise that
the average person does not have.