Although God commands that certain criminals be put to death, He highly esteems life. In fact, this is the true reason for His instituting the death penalty: to prevent the wanton disregard of human life. Therefore, the death penalty was only to be carried out when guilt was firmly established. According to biblical law, people are never to be put to death without clear evidence that they are, in fact, guilty. In the biblical world that almost always meant eyewitnesses, since none of the forensic evidence we rely on today, such as fingerprints, blood type, DNA, etc., was available to them. God said clearly, “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness” (Deut. 17:6). So that people would be sure to get the point, God restated the same thing two chapters later: “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut. 19:15).
Witnesses were much more available in biblical society than they are today. We Americans do a lot alone that people in biblical times would never have done alone. We often live alone, work alone, shop alone, exercise alone and drive alone. In the culture of the Bible, people did things together for the purpose of protection. Families and extended families lived together, men worked the fields with other men, and women did their chores with other women, so that the opportunities to find someone really alone were quite rare. Although this is not the case in America today, and two or three witnesses may not always be available, we have developed forensic science to the degree that it is often a very reliable witness.
Because witnesses were so important in court, one of the capital crimes in the Bible was perjury in a capital case. Interestingly, the Bible has only two examples of innocent men executed by the government after a trial: Naboth (1 Kings 21) and Jesus Christ. In both of these cases, perjury was involved. The Bible is very specific about perjury. It says that the perjurer is to receive whatever punishment the person on trial would have gotten if the perjury had not been discovered.
Deuteronomy 19:16, 19 and 21
(16) If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime,
(19) then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you.
(21) Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
History reveals that when an innocent man is given the death penalty, perjury is often involved. Furthermore, a study of the cases in which a “guilty” person was later found to be innocent shows that, to get the conviction, evidence was often withheld or tampered with, or witnesses lied. It is clear that lying in court to get another person executed by the government is tantamount to murder, and it is easy to see why God commands the death penalty for someone who would do that. If our government speedily executed anyone caught lying or doctoring evidence in a capital case, most of that would stop very quickly.