Torah Portion: Mishpatim
Do not execute the innocent or the righteous (Shemos 23:7).
It is a negative commandment that beis din (the court) not execute a person unless there were witnesses who saw, with their own eyes, the event for which the person deserves to be condemned. They may not testify based on circumstantial evidence, as compelling as it may be. About this it is written, Do not execute the innocent or the righteous (Shemos 23:7); that is, be extremely cautious to not execute a person who might be innocent of the charges that were made against him.
Even if a thousand witnesses saw the man chasing after his fellow to murder him, and the witnesses warned him not to, but they momentarily could not see him, so that they did not see the actual murder — and even if a moment later they found the victim dead and the suspect is holding a knife dripping with blood — the court does not execute the suspect based on their testimony since their eyes did not see his actions at the time of the blow.
This is proper and fitting, for if the Torah had allowed punishment based on what seems reasonable, but without direct evidence, it could lead to a terrible consequence whereby an innocent man would be put to death. Hashem therefore closed this possibility and commanded us that we not execute anyone unless there are witnesses who testify that they saw death-deserving act with their own eyes.
Another case that is included in this prohibition is when there is one witness who testifies about a man that he desecrated the Shabbos, and another witness testified that the man worshiped idolatry. Now, even though each activity is a capital sin for which a person is liable for death, nevertheless since the testimony of the witnesses are about two unrelated actions, they do not combine to make the man liable for the death penalty.
The root of this mitzvah is clear, as explained.
It applies in the Land of Israel, to men who are worthy of judging [such cases].