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A Sanhedrin that executes one man every seven years is called destructive. (Mishnah, Makkot 1:10)
In Biblical times, capital punishment was legal, and in the Torah there is one instance of capital punishment being inflicted. In the Book of Numbers (where we are right now), there is a story about a man gathering kindling on Shabbat. God told Moses that the whole community should pelt the man with stones until he died, and the entire community pelted him with stones until he died. (Num. 15:32-36).
Later on, the sages erected so many obstacles in the path of capital punishment to prevent the execution of any man or woman. That is why the Mishnah states a Sanhedrin that executes one man every seven years (there’s another version in the Talmud that says “70 years”) is destructive.
When I was an assistant prosecutor in Middlesex County, one of my responsibilities was to teach the law of deadly force to police officers. I was not an expert on police tactics or the use of firearms, but I was an expert on the New Jersey Penal Code. The Penal Code contains statutes that govern the use of deadly force in self-defense for everybody, and the Penal Code contains statutes that govern the use of deadly force by police officers in their encounters with civilians. For example, civilians must legally retreat before using deadly force if they can do safely (there is an exception when the civilian is in his own home), but police officers do not need to retreat before using deadly force.
One of the statutes says that a police officer is legally entitled to use deadly force to thwart attempts to commit certain crimes, to thwart the commission of the same crimes, and thwart the escape of perpetrators who had committed the same crimes. The enumerated crimes were homicide, kidnaping, sexual assault or sexual contact, arson, robbery, and burglary of a dwelling. The enumerated crimes were personal and violent crimes except arson and burglary, but arson can lead to death of an innocent person. Burglary is a property crime, and in my 35-year experience as a prosecutor, I could count on the fingers of one hand when burglary led to a personal confrontation with the homeowner.
When I taught police officers the law of deadly force, I always prefaced my lecture with the statement that I am not an expert in police tactics or the practical aspects of using firearms, but I am here to make you understand what the law entitles you to do, and what the law does not entitle you to do. When I discussed the enumerated crimes in relation to deadly force, I invariably said, “You have the legal right to shoot a fleeing burglar in the back and kill him, but you don’t want to the first police officer in New Jersey to shoot a fleeing burglar in the back and kill him. You can shoot a fleeing arsonist, a fleeing murderer or manslaughterer, a fleeing kidnaper, a fleeing robber, or fleeing sexual assaulter, but let the burglar get away. I repeat, you don’t want to be the first police officer in New Jersey to shoot a fleeing burglar in the back.”
George Floyd allegedly attempted to use a counterfeit $20 bill in a store, and the arresting police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd kept repeating that he could not breathe until he became unconscious and died. Now, passing counterfeit currency or attempted theft (or outright theft) are two of the crimes police officers cannot legally use deadly force to thwart or apprehend in New Jersey. A Minnesota statute governs the use of deadly force by police officers (609.066) and it clearly does not sanction deadly force for passing counterfeit currency.
I don’t know whether the arresting officer was justified in keeping his knee on Floyd’s neck; as I said, I am not an expert in police tactics. But analogizing to my remarks to the police officers I trained about deadly force being used to stop a fleeing burglar, I would have said, “You should never use this tactic [the knee on the suspect’s neck] to extreme; you should better let the suspect go than kill him.”
The ancient rabbis knew the obstacles they threw in the path of a successful prosecution of a capital crime, but they knew there was a difference between what is legal and what is moral or ethical. So too, people in power should know and act on the difference between what is legal, and what is moral and ethical.