When Utah legislators weigh proposed elimination of the firing squad next year, they can rest assured that the Mormon church has no stake in the issue.
A commission drafting legislation to make lethal injection the state’s sole method of execution sought input from the church and received this response:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no objection to the elimination of the firing squad in Utah.”
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The statement should assuage lawmakers who might erroneously believe that the church condones the doctrine of blood atonement, said Utah Sentencing Commission member Paul Boyden on Thursday.
Said Sen. Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, who three months ago started drafting his anti-firing squad bill, “It always helps when the church indicates they will not oppose legislation.”
Some early church leaders taught that blood must be spilled to atone for grievous sins, but the doctrine has never been practiced by the church, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
Sentencing Commission Director Ron Gordon said opposition to abolishing the firing squad has been expressed through recent letters to the editor and by word of mouth.
He said they went to the church because it seemed to be “the authoritative body to comment” on the blood atonement issue.
“We were trying to cover our bases and be prepared for any questions that arise [concerning the legislation],” Gordon said. “It’s a regular process we go through, but doesn’t always involve getting a statement from that entity.”
Similarly, the commission has located a medical doctor who will say that collapsed veins are not an obstacle to lethal injection.
Dani Eyer, executive director of the Utah affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the church’s statement “interesting . . . because they occupy a significant position of power in the state of Utah.
“We reiterate that elected officials are meant to take their cues from their constituents,” Eyer added.
“It is the duty of elected officials to make decisions based on sound public policy, the majority will and for secular reasons.”
Utah remains the only state that actually uses a firing squad for executions. Idaho and Oklahoma retain the option only in the event lethal injection cannot be used for medical or legal reasons.
Allen says convicted killers use the firing squad “to create a stage for themselves and it’s disrespectful to the victims’ families. Most people in the civilized world find shooting squads barbaric.”
Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, has been pushing for abolishment of the firing squad since the January 1996 firing squad execution of John Albert Taylor, which drew nearly 150 television crews, including reporters from Italy and Japan.
During an August meeting of the sentencing commission, Rep. Allen called firing squads “a magnet for publicity.”
Commission members agreed the Wild West flavor of a firing squad execution brings unfavorable publicity to the state and poses logistical problems for prison officials.
And, as one commission member noted, the “blood-atonement intrigue only heightens the media circus.”
The notion of blood atonement as church doctrine persists, despite repeated statements to the contrary by LDS Church officials.
According to Weber State University criminologist L. Kay Gillespie’s book, The Unforgiven: Utah’s Executed Men, church officials in 1978 told the Utah Law Review: “There is simply no such thing among us as a doctrine of blood atonement. “
Church officials added that statements by past church leaders about blood atonement pertained to “a theoretical principle that has been neither revealed to nor practiced by us.”
In 1984, serial killer Arthur Gary Bishop asked church leaders about blood atonement while deciding whether to die by lethal injection or a firing squad, according to Gillespie’s book.
Bishop — the slayer of five young boys — received a response from Gordon B. Hinckley, then-counselor to church President Spencer W. Kimball, that the method of execution did not matter.
According to Gillespie, Hinckley told Bishop that “blood atonement ended with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “
Bishop was executed four years later by lethal injection.