In 1982, Nick Yarris was convicted of the rape and murder of Linda Mae Craig. He was sentenced to death and was sent to death row where he awaited his execution date. Two decades into his sentence he sent a petition to the Pennsylvania Courts asking for all his appeals to cease and for this sentence of death to be carried out. But before this occurred, in 2003, DNA evidence proved that he had not committed the crime, and in 2004 he was released after spending 22 years in prison; 14 of those years in solitary confinement.
The institution that helped exonerate Nick Yarris was the Innocence Project who, as of January 2020, has documented over 365 DNA exonerations in the United States. Twenty-one of these exonerees had previously been sentenced to death. In 2014, The National Academy of Sciences released a report where they estimated that statistically that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. This means that the United States is accepting that it is tolerable to kill one innocent person in order to bring 25 guilty people to justice via capital punishment.
Throughout history individuals have debated the question regarding how many innocent lives are worth being lost in order to maintain the rightful killing of guilty individuals via capital punishment.
In the 12th century, Jewish legal theorist Maimonides wrote that “the Exalted One has shut this door” against the use of presumptive evidence, for “it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”
In the 15th century (c. 1470), John Fortescue who served as Chief Justice on the King’s Bench of England wrote: “one would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape the punishment of death, than that one innocent person should be condemned and suffer capitally.”
In the 16th century, Matthew Hale, who also served as Chief Justice on the King’s Bench of England wrote, “for it is better five guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent person should die.”
English jurist William Blackstone in his seminal work Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s which is know as Blackstone’s ratio which states that: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” In criminal law today, this is known as Blackstone’s ratio.
In 1785, Benjamin Franklin stated it as: “it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer”.
But what does the Quran have to say about the matter? Before God provides us this answer He informs us the history of Adam’s two sons, who in the Bible are referenced as Able and Cain.
[5:27] Recite for them the true history of Adam’s two sons. They made an offering, and it was accepted from one of them, but not from the other. He said, “I will surely kill you.” He said, “GOD accepts only from the righteous. [5:28] “If you extend your hand to kill me, I am not extending my hand to kill you. For I reverence GOD, Lord of the universe. [5:29] “I want you, not me, to bear my sin and your sin, then you end up with the dwellers of Hell. Such is the requital for the transgressors.” [5:30] His ego provoked him into killing his brother. He killed him, and ended up with the losers. [5:31] GOD then sent a raven to scratch the soil, to teach him how to bury his brother’s corpse. He said, “Woe to me; I failed to be as intelligent as this raven, and bury my brother’s corpse.” He became ridden with remorse.
[5:32] Because of this, we decreed for the Children of Israel that anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people. Our messengers went to them with clear proofs and revelations, but most of them, after all this, are still transgressing.
مِنْ أَجْلِ ذَٰلِكَ كَتَبْنَا عَلَىٰ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ أَنَّهُ مَنْ قَتَلَ نَفْسًا بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ أَوْ فَسَادٍ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَمَنْ أَحْيَاهَا فَكَأَنَّمَا أَحْيَا النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَلَقَدْ جَاءَتْهُمْ رُسُلُنَا بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ ثُمَّ إِنَّ كَثِيرًا مِنْهُمْ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فِي الْأَرْضِ لَمُسْرِفُونَ
So according to the Quran the degree of caution that one needs to partake when dealing with capital punishment is all of humanity to one.
This also corroborates with the criteria that God uses when He annihilated any community in the past. In the examples provided in the Quran, God saved every single soul that deserved to be saved and the retribution only fell upon the individuals who were truly wicked.
[29:31] When our messengers went to Abraham with good news (about Isaac’s birth), they also said, “We are on our way to annihilate the people of that town (Sodom). For its people have been wicked.” [29:32] He said, “But Lot is living there.” They said, “We are fully aware of everyone who lives in it. We will of course save him and his family, except his wife; she is doomed.”
[28:59] For your Lord never annihilates any community without sending a messenger in the midst thereof, to recite our revelations to them. We never annihilate any community, unless its people are wicked.
(٥٩) وَمَا كَانَ رَبُّكَ مُهْلِكَ الْقُرَىٰ حَتَّىٰ يَبْعَثَ فِي أُمِّهَا رَسُولًا يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِنَا وَمَا كُنَّا مُهْلِكِي الْقُرَىٰ إِلَّا وَأَهْلُهَا ظَالِمُونَ
Based on this information with the degree of certainty being set so high, does the Quran allow for capital punishment? We see in the immediate next verse after stating that the killing of a single innocent individual is like killing all of humanity God informs us that despite this there are times when capital punishment is justified.
[5:33] The just retribution for those who fight GOD and His messenger, and commit horrendous crimes, is to be killed, or crucified, or to have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or to be banished from the land. This is to humiliate them in this life, then they suffer a far worse retribution in the Hereafter.
إِنَّمَا جَزَاءُ الَّذِينَ يُحَارِبُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَيَسْعَوْنَ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَسَادًا أَنْ يُقَتَّلُوا أَوْ يُصَلَّبُوا أَوْ تُقَطَّعَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَأَرْجُلُهُمْ مِنْ خِلَافٍ أَوْ يُنْفَوْا مِنَ الْأَرْضِ ذَٰلِكَ لَهُمْ خِزْيٌ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَلَهُمْ فِي الْآخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ
To understand the subtleties of this verse it helps to look at the Arabic as well.
In English when we say someone is “fighting” this could imply something as benign as someone objecting, quarreling, or arguing as well as someone who is physically aggressing or carrying out violence. The Arabic word used in this word for this action is “يُحَارِبُونَ” (yuḥāribūna) which comes from the root ح ر ب which means war.
[47:4] If you encounter (in war) those who disbelieve, you may strike the necks. If you take them as captives you may set them free or ransom them, until the war ends. Had GOD willed, He could have granted you victory, without war. But He thus tests you by one another. As for those who get killed in the cause of GOD, He will never put their sacrifice to waste.
فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَضَرْبَ الرِّقَابِ حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَثْخَنْتُمُوهُمْ فَشُدُّوا الْوَثَاقَ فَإِمَّا مَنًّا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَاءً حَتَّىٰ تَضَعَ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا ذَٰلِكَ وَلَوْ يَشَاءُ اللَّهُ لَانْتَصَرَ مِنْهُمْ وَلَٰكِنْ لِيَبْلُوَ بَعْضَكُمْ بِبَعْضٍ وَالَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ فَلَنْ يُضِلَّ أَعْمَالَهُمْ
[8:57] Therefore, if you encounter them in war, you shall set them up as a deterrent example for those who come after them, that they may take heed.
(٥٧) فَإِمَّا تَثْقَفَنَّهُمْ فِي الْحَرْبِ فَشَرِّدْ بِهِمْ مَنْ خَلْفَهُمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَذَّكَّرُونَ
So this verse is specifically in the context of an individual who wages war, but there is a second clause as well. The verse states that they must also commit horrendous crimes. The Arabic for this is “وَيَسْعَوْنَ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَسَادًا” which translates to “and they strive in the earth corruptly.” We see the same phrase used again in the context of war in the following verse.
[5:64] The Jews even said, “GOD’s hand is tied down!” It is their hands that are tied down. They are condemned for uttering such a blasphemy. Instead, His hands are wide open, spending as He wills. For certain, your Lord’s revelations to you will cause many of them to plunge deeper into transgression and disbelief. Consequently, we have committed them to animosity and hatred among themselves until the Day of Resurrection. Whenever they ignite the flames of war, GOD puts them out. They roam the earth wickedly, and GOD dislikes the evildoers.
وَقَالَتِ الْيَهُودُ يَدُ اللَّهِ مَغْلُولَةٌ غُلَّتْ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَلُعِنُوا بِمَا قَالُوا بَلْ يَدَاهُ مَبْسُوطَتَانِ يُنْفِقُ كَيْفَ يَشَاءُ وَلَيَزِيدَنَّ كَثِيرًا مِنْهُمْ مَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْكَ مِنْ رَبِّكَ طُغْيَانًا وَكُفْرًا وَأَلْقَيْنَا بَيْنَهُمُ الْعَدَاوَةَ وَالْبَغْضَاءَ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ كُلَّمَا أَوْقَدُوا نَارًا لِلْحَرْبِ أَطْفَأَهَا اللَّهُ وَيَسْعَوْنَ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَسَادًا وَاللَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الْمُفْسِدِينَ
I understand that the requirement for when capital punishment is justified as a state is only in the context of war where an individual is an active participant in fueling the flames and conducting the acts. If we read the following verse in 5:34 we see that there is one other requirement as well.
[5:34] Exempted are those who repent before you overcome them. You should know that GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful.
(٣٤) إِلَّا الَّذِينَ تَابُوا مِنْ قَبْلِ أَنْ تَقْدِرُوا عَلَيْهِمْ فَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ
If an individual willfully surrenders and repents before being overcome they are exempted from capital punishment. This also corresponds with the rules of war in the Quran.
Rules of War*
[2:190] You may fight in the cause of GOD against those who attack you, but do not aggress. GOD does not love the aggressors. [2:191] You may kill those who wage war against you, and you may evict them whence they evicted you. Oppression is worse than murder. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque (Masjid), unless they attack you therein. If they attack you, you may kill them. This is the just retribution for those disbelievers. [2:192] If they refrain, then GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful. [2:193] You may also fight them to eliminate oppression, and to worship GOD freely. If they refrain, you shall not aggress; aggression is permitted only against the aggressors. [2:194] During the Sacred Months, aggression may be met by an equivalent response. If they attack you, you may retaliate by inflicting an equitable retribution. You shall observe GOD and know that GOD is with the righteous.
*Note the root ث ق ف is always used in the context of war throughout the entire Quran.
[4:94] O you who believe, if you strike in the cause of GOD, you shall be absolutely sure. Do not say to one who offers you peace, “You are not a believer,” seeking the spoils of this world. For GOD possesses infinite spoils. Remember that you used to be like them, and GOD blessed you. Therefore, you shall be absolutely sure (before you strike). GOD is fully Cognizant of everything you do.
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا ضَرَبْتُمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ فَتَبَيَّنُوا وَلَا تَقُولُوا لِمَنْ أَلْقَىٰ إِلَيْكُمُ السَّلَامَ لَسْتَ مُؤْمِنًا تَبْتَغُونَ عَرَضَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا فَعِنْدَ اللَّهِ مَغَانِمُ كَثِيرَةٌ كَذَٰلِكَ كُنْتُمْ مِنْ قَبْلُ فَمَنَّ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكُمْ فَتَبَيَّنُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا
So when can capital punishment be carried out?
[2:178] O you who believe, equivalence is the law decreed for you when dealing with murder—the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the female for the female. If one is pardoned by the victim’s kin, an appreciative response is in order, and an equitable compensation shall be paid. This is an alleviation from your Lord and mercy. Anyone who transgresses beyond this incurs a painful retribution.
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِصَاصُ فِي الْقَتْلَى الْحُرُّ بِالْحُرِّ وَالْعَبْدُ بِالْعَبْدِ وَالْأُنْثَىٰ بِالْأُنْثَىٰ فَمَنْ عُفِيَ لَهُ مِنْ أَخِيهِ شَيْءٌ فَاتِّبَاعٌ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَأَدَاءٌ إِلَيْهِ بِإِحْسَانٍ ذَٰلِكَ تَخْفِيفٌ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ فَمَنِ اعْتَدَىٰ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فَلَهُ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
[2:179] Equivalence is a life saving law for you, O you who possess intelligence, that you may be righteous.
(١٧٩) وَلَكُمْ فِي الْقِصَاصِ حَيَاةٌ يَاأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
“In dealing with murder, the Quran definitely discourages capital punishment (2:179). “The free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female” (2:178). Due to human meanness and injustice, many people cannot even imagine what this Quranic law says. They refuse to accept the clear injunctions that strict equivalence must be observed – if a woman kills a man, or a man kills a woman, or a slave kills a free person, or a free person kills a slave, capital punishment cannot be applied. The Quran prefers that the murderer compensate the victim’s family. Killing the murderer does not bring the victim back, nor does the family of the victim benefit from executing the murderer. The compensation, however, must be sufficient to be a deterrent for others. In Submission (Islam), the victim and/or the victim’s family are the judges for all crimes; they decide what the punishment shall be under the supervision of a person who knows the Quran.” – Rashad Khalifa, Appendix 37 – Criminal Justice
I personally believe that if a family wants to have the death penalty carried out on the murder of a family member they have to be the ones who carry out the act. I believe this is part of the deterrent from capital punishment, because if we are saying we are wanting such justice to take place then we have to be able to do the act ourselves and not outsource this responsibility onto someone else.
In addition, God provides numerous verses to appeal to individuals who suffered a loss from a loved one to forgive and not resort to revenge.
[16:126] And if you punish, you shall inflict an equivalent punishment. But if you resort to patience (instead of revenge), it would be better for the patient ones. [16:127] You shall resort to patience—and your patience is attainable only with GOD’s help. Do not grieve over them, and do not be annoyed by their schemes. [16:128] GOD is with those who lead a righteous life, and those who are charitable.
[42:37] They avoid gross sins and vice, and when angered they forgive. [42:38] They respond to their Lord by observing the Contact Prayers (Salat). Their affairs are decided after due consultation among themselves, and from our provisions to them they give (to charity). [42:39] When gross injustice befalls them, they stand up for their rights. [42:40] Although the just requital for an injustice is an equivalent retribution, those who pardon and maintain righteousness are rewarded by GOD. He does not love the unjust. [42:41] Certainly, those who stand up for their rights, when injustice befalls them, are not committing any error. [42:42] The wrong ones are those who treat the people unjustly, and resort to aggression without provocation. These have incurred a painful retribution. [42:43] Resorting to patience and forgiveness reflects a true strength of character.
As believers in God, we know that God is the ultimate enforcer of justice. This is part of believing in a Hereafter. Such that we know no act no matter how small will not be accounted for upon every individual.
[34:3] Those who disbelieve have said, “The Hour will never come to pass!” Say, “Absolutely—by my Lord—it will most certainly come to you. He is the Knower of the future. Not even the equivalent of an atom’s weight is hidden from Him, be it in the heavens or the earth. Not even smaller than that, or larger (is hidden). All are in a profound record.”
وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لَا تَأْتِينَا السَّاعَةُ قُلْ بَلَىٰ وَرَبِّي لَتَأْتِيَنَّكُمْ عَالِمِ الْغَيْبِ لَا يَعْزُبُ عَنْهُ مِثْقَالُ ذَرَّةٍ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَلَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَا أَصْغَرُ مِنْ ذَٰلِكَ وَلَا أَكْبَرُ إِلَّا فِي كِتَابٍ مُبِينٍ
[99:0] In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful [99:1] When the earth is severely quaked. [99:2] And the earth ejects its loads. [99:3] The human will wonder: “What is happening?” [99:4] On that day, it will tell its news. [99:5] That your Lord has commanded it. [99:6] On that day, the people will issue from every direction, to be shown their works. [99:7] Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it. [99:8] And whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.
[40:17] On that day, every soul will be requited for whatever it had earned. There will be no injustice on that day. GOD is most efficient in reckoning.
(١٧) الْيَوْمَ تُجْزَىٰ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ لَا ظُلْمَ الْيَوْمَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ سَرِيعُ الْحِسَابِ
In 2007, Abdollah Hosseinzadeh was stabbed and killed in a street brawl in the small town of Royan, Iran when he was only 18. He had known his killer, Balal. The two, barely out of their teens at the time, had played football together.
For seven years Balal waited for his execution and on the day he was blind folded and taken out, his own mother sat mourning what appeared to be her son’s inevitable fate. As he got up to the platform and had the noose wrapped around his neck standing next to him was Abdollah’s mother, Samareh Ali Nezhad. This was the second son that she lost; after losing her youngest son in a motorbike accident when he was only 11 years old. Overwhelmed with grief she was ready to watch her son’s killer hang to death. And right when Samareh was ready to knock over the chair that would end Balal’s life she instead slapped Balal slapped her son’s killer in the face and said that she would forgive him for his son’s murder.