Plato, Kinslayers, and Georgia.

On September 30, 2015, the State of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner. A convicted murderer, Gissendaner recently became a household name in the debate over the death penalty. Even the Catholic Church became involved, with a plea for mercy being issued in the Pope’s name. In the midst of this frenzy, where would Plato have stood?

Thankfully, Plato left us the information needed to answer that question. His final work, the Laws, contains detailed plans for a new colony. It includes a penal code, rules of procedure, and specific punishments. This article seeks to explain how Gissendaner’s crime would have been handled in Plato’s colony.

In November of 1996, Gissendaner approached her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, with a plan to kill her husband, Doug Gissendaner. The married couple had filed for separation some months prior, but Gissendaner sought more than just a divorce. Ultimately, she successfully convinced Owen to assist her in killing her husband.

On the night of February 7, 1997, Gissendaner put her plan into action. She arranged for Owen to hide in her home and wait for the victim while she went out. When the victim entered the home, Owen kidnapped him at knife-point and drove him to a forested location. Despite the victim’s pleas, Owen proceeded to murder him in cold blood. Gissendaner then met up with Owen and helped him hide the body and burn the victim’s car.

Prior to trial, the prosecutor gave both Owen and Gissendaner the opportunity to plead guilty and avoid the death penalty. Owen took the offer, but Gissendaner continued to plead not guilty. Following a jury trial, Gissendaner was found guilty of murder and sentenced to die.

Gissendaner was guilty of violating Georgia state law, but did she violate any of Plato’s laws? Unsurprisingly, murder is very much a crime in Plato’s colony. Plato describes murder as killing a person with one’s own hands, and he divides the crime into different degrees of severity. The crime applies to both men and women, and the most severe sort of murder is pre-meditated kinslaying.

Yet, the above law requires that the murderer personally carry out the killing. Here, Gissendaner only arranged the killing and destroyed the evidence. Similar to our modern laws, though, Plato maintains that a person who arranges a murder is still a murderer:

“If a man do not commit a murder with his own hand, but contrives the death of another, and is the author of the deed in intention and design, and he continues to dwell in the city, having his soul not pure of the guilt of murder, let him be tried in the same way, except in what relates to the sureties; and also, if he be found guilty, his body after execution may have burial in his native land, but in all other respects his case shall be as the former; and whether a stranger shall kill a citizen, or a citizen a stranger, or a slave a slave, there shall be no difference as touching murder by one’s own hand or by contrivance, except in the matter of sureties…”

Simply put, a person in Plato’s colony may still be charged with murder if he (1) plans the death of another; (2) sees that the plan is carried out; (3) and continues to live in the city. As shown above, “there shall be no difference as touching murder by one’s own hand or by contrivance” except in terms of setting bail.

When modern law enforcement has sufficient evidence that an individual has committed a particular crime, the next step is to charge the suspect. How did Plato envision a person being charged with a crime? Plato does not explicitly describe how charges should be brought:

“[H]ow the causes are to be brought into court, how the summonses are to be served, the like, these things may be left to the younger generation of legislators to determine.”

Later in the dialogue, however, Plato does offer some guidance. Initially, a close relative of the victim would be required to draft the charges and summon the killer to court; failure to do so would be a crime in itself. Should there be no immediate family, or should the family reject its duty, a civic-minded citizen would bring the charge on behalf of society.

For any charge to be tried, there must be a court. The next step Plato takes, therefore, is to explain how capital cases will be heard:

“In cases of death, let the judges be the guardians of the law, and a court selected by merit from the last year’s magistrates.”

Yet, who or what is a Guardian of the Law? Plato indicates that they are the highest officials in the colony, and that they number 37. To become a Guardian, a candidate must first be nominated by citizens who have served, or are currently serving, in the military. After the nominations, the citizen body as a whole may make its selection. Candidates must be over the age of 50, and may not serve beyond 70 years of age.

Magistrates are also elected officials, although the election is handled differently and the term of office is much shorter. In addition to these participants, Plato also indicates that the court should, “[L]et all the citizens who can spare time hear and take a serious interest in listening to such cases.”

When the court is constituted, the charging documents drafted, and the parties present, the next step is to conduct the trial. While it would be fun to just imagine a Law & Order style scene, Plato was thoughtful enough to draft the rules of procedure. He writes,

“First of all the plaintiff shall make one speech, and then the defendant shall make another; and after the speeches have been made the eldest judge shall begin to examine the parties, and proceed to make an adequate enquiry into what has been said; and after the oldest has spoken, the rest shall proceed in order to examine either party as to what he finds defective in the evidence, whether of statement or omission; and he who has nothing to ask shall hand over the examination to another. And on so much of what has been said as is to the purpose all the judges shall set their seals, and place the writings on the altar of Hestia. On the next day they shall meet again, and in like manner put their questions and go through the cause, and again set their seals upon the evidence; and when they have three times done this, and have had witnesses and evidence enough, they shall each of them give a holy vote, after promising by Hestia that they will decide justly and truly to the utmost of their power; and so they shall put an end to the suit.”

This procedure is both familiar and foreign to a modern American attorney. Just like a criminal trial, the two parties bring witnesses to court and make speeches. Yet, it is the judges who examine the witnesses, and they question the attorneys like an appellate hearing. The law also requires that the trial take three days. Finally, the vote itself is one of simple majority, so a defendant may be found guilty even if some of the judges are not convinced.

After the court finds Gissendaner guilty of murder, the only stage left is sentencing. To determine the severity of the murder, it is not enough to decide whether it was pre-meditated. Plato also considers the relationship between the defendant and the victim, as well as the victim’s social status. Here, we clearly have a pre-meditated murder, and the victim would be considered a non-kin freeman:

“Let him who is convicted be punished with death, and let him not be buried in the country of the murdered man, for this would be shameless as well as impious. But if he fly and will not stand his trial, let him fly for ever; or, if he set foot anywhere on any part of the murdered man’s country, let any relation of the deceased, or any other citizen who may first happen to meet with him, kill him with impunity, or bind and deliver him to those among the judges of the case who are magistrates, that they may put him to death.”

Because Gissendaner did not kill the victim with her own hands, however, an exception is made that allows her to be buried in her own country regardless of the victim.

Given that the victim here is Gissendaner’s husband, modern audiences might consider them kin. To Plato, however, kin consists of a blood relation, such as a father to a son. Unless Gissendaner was a blood relation of her husband, she would be subject to the above punishment. Still, it is worth sharing the punishment that applies to kinslayers:

“[I]f he be convicted, the servants of the judges and the magistrates shall slay him at an appointed place without the city where three ways meet, and there expose his body naked, and each of the magistrates on behalf of the whole city shall take a stone and cast it upon the head of the dead man, and so deliver the city from pollution; after that, they shall bear him to the borders of the land, and cast him forth unburied, according to law.”

Kin or not, the result in Plato’s colony is clear: mandatory death with no appeal.


All quotations are taken from Benjamin Jowett’s 19th century translation of Plato’s Laws.

This article was originally posted in 2015.

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