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    Sanhedrin & unanimous conviction – Ask the rabbi

    Q. Is it true that if a Sanhedrin unanimously votes to convict a defendant, the unanimous verdict cannot stand?

    The Sanhedrin, an illustration from an 1883 encyclopaedia

    A. 23 judges sat on the Sanhedrin trying capital cases. If there were a majority of one in favour of acquittal, the accused was acquitted; for a conviction, a majority of two was required.

    But if all 23 judges voted for conviction, and not even one judge voted for acquittal, the accused could not be convicted (Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin, 9:1).

    Maimonides’ explanation of the laws of divorce helps us understand this provision. According to Jewish law, a divorce is valid only when granted willingly. However, “if the law mandates that a person grant his wife a divorce and he refuses, a Jewish court may beat him until he says ‘I am willing’.”

    Why is such a gett not deemed “coerced” and therefore invalid?

    Maimonides explains that an act is not considered to be “coerced” unless the person has been forced to do something not required by the Torah, e.g. if a person were beaten until he agreed to sell or sign away his property.

    However, one who has been overpowered by his evil inclination to negate a mitzvah or commit a transgression, and is compelled to do what is right, is not considered “coerced” – on the contrary, it is his evil inclination that “coerced” him against his true will in the first instance.

    Thus, Judaism believes there is a possible defence for everyone who stands trial, regardless of the gravity of the crime and the evidence. In a sense, every evil deed is committed against its perpetrator’s better nature. Every crime is a result of external forces that have overwhelmed the person’s true self; “his evil inclination has coerced him, against his true will.”

    The Sanhedrin must decide as to the willfulness of the accused’s deed based on the evidence before them, not their knowledge of the human psychology. Nevertheless, if not one judge sees grounds for the defendant’s innocence, we suspect a little bias.

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