Israel's Justice Ministry Plans Total Overhaul of Homicide Laws

Proposed legislation would give judges more flexibility in sentencing killers, introduce two categories of murder.

The Justice Ministry released details on Tuesday of a proposed bill that would revamp the homicide laws and for the first time create two separate types of murder.

The ministry explained that the current law does not sufficiently distinguish between the circumstances under which a killing is committed, or provide an appropriate gradation of offenses and punishments.

The current manslaughter law, for example, is too broad, encompassing both aggravated circumstances and more mitigating situations, the ministry stated.

It also said that the current murder law does not give judges the option to reduce a murderer's mandatory life sentence, even if the circumstances warrant it.

Currently there is only one murder offense on the books, and it carries a mandatory life sentence. The Justice Ministry is proposing that the law be amended to provide for a basic murder offense, that would carry either a life sentence or up to 30 years in prison, if the sentencing judges choose to specify a specific number of years of incarceration.

A separate offense of aggravated murder would be created, for which the only punishment would be life behind bars. The suggested change is designed to make a distinction depending upon the circumstances of the murder.

The ministry provides examples of various circumstances that would justify a conviction of aggravated murder. They include murder committed out of racist motives or as a result of hostility toward the public; the murder of a law enforcement official, such as a judge, prosecutor or police officer; a murder committed with exceptional cruelty or through abuse of the victim; a murder committed on behalf of a terrorist or crime organization; and a murder of a prospective witness in criminal proceedings.

The homicide law currently on the books includes negligent homicide, which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison; manslaughter, which, unlike negligent homicide, involves criminal intent - ranging from reckless homicide up to intentional killing committed on the spur of the moment - and carries a penalty of up to 20 years in jail; and finally murder, with its current mandatory life sentence.

The ministry's proposal is based on recommendations of a committee that was appointed to review the country's homicide laws. The panel was headed by Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer of the Israel Democracy Institute and Hebrew University. It was asked to develop a hierarchy of offenses for acts of manslaughter and murder, and to examine the possible need for an offense in the criminal code between manslaughter and murder.

In addition to creating two separate murder offenses, the proposed law would convert the manslaughter offense into two separate offenses. The first - homicide under circumstances of diminished responsibility - would carry up to 20 years in prison. It would include situations in which the killer was provoked by his victim.

The second - reckless homicide - would carry a maximum of nine years in prison. That would involve situations in which the perpetrator was not trying to kill his victim, though was aware that his actions could cause death.

The proposed bill would also address the issue of so-called mercy killings, in which the victim asked to have his life ended due to his grave state of health. Such cases would carry a sentence of up to five years.

The Justice Ministry is taking public comments on the proposed bill.

The Justice Ministry
Daniel Bar On