At age 24, as a junior in college in a Social Work Policy class, I was instructed to work on a team with five women on writing a 20 page opinion paper on the Death Penalty. We studied for weeks, required to review cases in Idaho and on national statistics, to read scholarly reviews on opinions both for and against it, and to conduct a few interviews. After dozens of hours writing and perfecting the paper, we reached a consensus that the death penalty was unjust. We learned a few basic facts: it is cheaper to keep someone in prison for life than it is to kill them (seriously, look it up); that each life has value, even when that life is spent behind bars; and that the justice system can be insanely corrupt, convoluted, and inconsistest.
An example of the last: Joe Hill was executed by firing squad after he was convicted on circumstantial evidence for shooting a man in a grocery store; it is widely believed he is innocent. Meanwhile, the Green River serial killer, who brutally murdered nearly 100 victims, was given life in prison; Charles Manson was not only not given a death sentence, he was up for parole a few times.
I’m currently working on an intensive research project that intersects the complicated history of murders, trials, and death penalty convictions in Utah. Many of my thoughts on these matters will be saved for now as I continue my research, but I want to share a few here. Over and over in these trials, the concept of Blood Atonement comes up, mentioned thousands of times in the courts. I’m not exaggerating, thousands upon thousands.
It’s a relatively complicated doctrine that boils down to some relatively simple premises. 1. Brigham Young, who settled the Mormons in Utah and acted both as their prophet and governor, is revered by Mormons. They believe his words to be the commands of God directly.
2. Brigham Young taught about Blood Atonement, basically certain sins committed by believing Mormons can only be forgiven when the sinner has his blood shed in recompense. In other words, if you commit a certain sin, it is God’s command that you be killed. Sins listed by Brigham Young in association with Blood Atonement include: MISCEGENATION (a white person sleeping with a person of another race and having children), APOSTASY (rebelling against the church), THEFT, MURDER, FORNICATION (having sex outside of wedlock), and ADULTERY (having sex with someone besides your spouse). When you combine all of this with POLYGAMY (Brigham Young himself had over 50 wives), RACISM (teachings by Young that show people who are non-white are cursed, evil, and degenerate), and MISOGYNY (a system that often treated women as property and taught their station was as wives and mothers), Utah in the 1800s becomes a VERY complicated place). Young taught that ideally sinners would take their own lives, and that in the case of executions, they should be done with love and kindness.
3. The Church no longer teaches Blood Atonement. And, honestly, many of its members have no idea what it is. But when you are calling upon Mormons to serve as jurors in Death Penalty cases, you have to ask them about it. Because it was taught by Brigham Young, so it must be of God. And it is ingrained in the cultural history of Utah.
4. There are many examples in Utah’s history where believing Mormons took the doctrine of Blood Atonement in their own hands and saw members of the church murdered for sinning (the most famous examples are related to the Danites). In addition, many murders have been committed by people affiliated with Mormonism where they use Blood Atonement in their own defense, i.e. “I killed that woman because she was sinning, and I’m innocent because it is part of my religious beliefs.”
5. In the early days of the Church, the Mormon endowment ritual contained a graphic covenant in which members vowed to have their throats slit, their tongues cut out, and their chests ripped open if they ever divulged the sacred endowments to Gentiles, or those not of the faith. This covenant existed in some form until just a few decades ago, when it was changed.
For those who are shocked by this doctrine and think I’m overplaying my words here, I invite you to consider one of the most beloved Mormon stories from the Book of Mormon. Nephi is sent by God into the city to obtain the scriptural record. Laban refuses to give them up. God commands Nephi to murder Laban by beheading him in order to get the scriptures. The premise: it is better for this man, a sinner, to die so that you can have your beliefs. And if God commands it, it is okay. This idea is ingrained into every Mormon story, that beliefs trump government, that beliefs are more important than human life.
For my Mormon friends, imagine the prophet standing up and saying that any sinners should be murdered, decapitated, their throats cut and their bodies tossed in the river (all based on quotes by Young). Imagine the moral conflict that would cause. In 1858, when Alfred Cumming took over as Utah’s second governor (a change which had to take place after President James Buchanon sent out an army to force the Mormons to comply with federal edict), talk of Blood Atonement quieted at the governmental level, but every murder trial in Utah since then has had to reference this doctrine in some form ever since.