Old West — er, Old Testament — justice?

While with The Oklahoman, I covered the state prison system for a while and served as a media witness for three or four executions (yes, it’s sad to say I can’t remember which, but as a reporter, I tried not to dwell on such experiences).

Later, with The Associated Press in Tennessee, I was scheduled to witness the execution of a seven-time killer who told me that the government was using scientific technology to control his mind and body. After claiming for weeks that he’d simply lie down on the gurney and die, that inmate resumed his appeals three hours before his date with death.

Given my personal experiences, stories about capital punishment tend to catch my eye. There’s a doozy developing in Utah, where an inmate was given the choice of death by lethal injection or a firing squad:

Shackled at his ankles and wrists and wearing an orange jump suit, Ronnie Lee Gardner leaned forward in his chair Friday and uttered seven words that will place Utah in the international spotlight.

“I would like the firing squad, please,” Gardner said, his voice choking up.

As you might expect, religion already has come into play in the developing story in the home state of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The version of an AP story that I read Friday included this reference:

Lydia Kalish, Amnesty International’s death penalty abolition coordinator for Utah, said her organization opposes the state’s effort to see Gardner executed. But despite Utah’s strong religious roots — it’s the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — most here support the use of the death penalty.

“I think in Utah, when it suits their purposes, they go back to the Old Testament and the ‘eye for an eye’ kind of thing,” Kalish said. “These people may be the worst of the worst, but if the best we can do is repeat the same thing, it’s so obviously wrong.”

Wow, that’s an amazing couple of paragraphs. In a brief amount of space, the story manages to convict any Mormons and other religious people who believe in the death penalty. Despite the apparent bias, I read on to see the response of death penalty supporters. I didn’t find it. It wasn’t there.

Perhaps an AP editor recognized the bias because a later version of the story changed those two paragraphs to these, again with religious overtones:

About 20 anti-death penalty protesters demonstrated in the courthouse rotunda before the hearing.

“The firing squad is archaic, it’s violent, and it simply expands on the violence that we already experience from guns as a society,” said Bishop John C. Wester, of Utah’s Catholic Diocese.

Ahhhh, the Mormons are off the hook. Into this Old West showdown ride the Catholics. Seriously, the Salt Lake Tribune had an interesting Page 1 story earlier this month about Catholics leading the fight against the planned execution:

Utah’s Roman Catholic leaders are expressing dismay that, for the first time in more than a decade, the state is poised to execute an inmate.

The Salt Lake City diocese is urging parish priests to remind Catholics what the church teaches about the death penalty: that it cannot be justified when there are other ways to keep society safe.

The story highlighted the declining support of capital punishment by American Catholics — 48.5 percent in 2005, down from 70 percent in the late 1990s. However, it failed to make clear that the church hierarchy views the death penalty differently than, say, abortion or euthanasia. As I understand it, one’s position on capital punishment is more of a matter of individual conscience, while a Catholic politician at odds with the church on abortion could be denied Holy Communion. Mollie did an exceptional job of explaining this late last year.

As the Old West — and perhaps Old Testament — references gain steam leading up to the scheduled June 18 execution, it will be interesting to see how the media handle the religious angle. What questions would you like to see answered? And, of course, on a subject as controversial as capital punishment, please remember to keep comments focused on the journalistic issues.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Martha

    I have to admit, I’m gobsmacked.

    Firing squad? Can anyone shed light on this? Is this a remnant of a really old law, or what? I imagined that firing squads were military not civil executions.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    This is from the AP story:

    Utah’s death row inmates were for decades allowed to choose how they wanted to die. State lawmakers removed that choice in 2004 and made lethal injection the default method, but inmates sentenced before then still have a choice.

    The repeal of the firing squad wasn’t tied to any discomfort with the method itself. Rather, state lawmakers disliked the heaps of negative media attention that firing squads focused on the state, said state lawmaker Sheryl Allen, who twice carried legislation to change the law.

  • Dan Crawford

    The firing squad is not “cruel and unusual punishment”. The gun is the preferred mode of intentional death in our society. As for the morality of the death penalty itself, perhaps it might be appropriate for reporters to remind the citizenry what a superb deterrent to murder and mayhem the death penalty is whenever they get into an article about the death penalty.

    Given the popularity of the death penalty, I’m surprised a weekly execution hasn’t become the latest “reality TV” rage. Perhaps is we used a guillotine instead of the firing squad we might feel better.

    By the way, Bobby, nobody convicted anyone of anything. Kalish was stating her opinion – one based on Utah’s history. This won’t be the first firing squad execution in Brigham Young’s promised land.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dan, I wasn’t referring to Kalish’s quote. I was talking about this statement by the reporter:

    But despite Utah’s strong religious roots — it’s the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — most here support the use of the death penalty.

    That sentence makes a contrast between strong religious roots and support of the death penalty. That is an opinion. Giving opinions is not the reporter’s job. Let Kalish make that claim and then let the Mormons respond. That was my point.

    Again, I’ll stress that our purpose here is to discuss journalism — not the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

    I had been under the impression that the firing squad option reflected a Mormon doctrine (or an older interpretation of a doctrine) of “blood atonement.”

    Otherwise, the favored “Old West” method of execution was hanging.

    Has anyone asked an LDS theologian?

  • http://www.asoftanswer.com David H Sundwall

    Chas –

    I am Mormon but no theologian. I have never heard “Blood Atonement” doctrine preached in church and it has been disavowed by the LDS Church but it may be taught by splinter groups. I know anti-Mormon groups like to bring it up to discredit the church but that’s it.

    Martha –

    Utah removed the firing squad as an option in 2004 but because Gardner was convicted before that he’s grandfathered in to have that option.

  • Passing By

    This brought up an old memory from 1977. At that time, I recall reading or hearing some of this same sort of commentary.


  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Chas, interesting question. Found this from a 2003 Salt Lake Tribune article:

    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.”

    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.

    Even more reason for a reporter not to throw in a reference to Mormons in a story such as this without taking the time to include the proper background, context and response.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The post credited to moi in the URL near the end is actually by MZ.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

    Bobby–thanks for locating that article. As I said, I was not sure if the interpretation of atonement was current or reflected a 19th-century attitude, back when Utah’s territorial and/or state laws were being codified. Clearly it would seem to be the latter.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    My apologies to Mollie! :-) I have fixed it.

  • http://www.devinetoursrome.com Charles Collins

    Others have touched on this, but just to sum up my problems with the story:

    1) The firing squad is not in any way an “Old West” method of execution, which was always hanging. The firing squad is a military execution. And, yes, the reason it exists in Utah is because of the previously held belief of “blood atonement” by the LDS church. Certain sins were taken to need the actual spilling of blood for them to be forgiven, and early Mormons took that quite literally. However, it is no longer taught by the LDS, and is generally chosen by inmates in order to embarrass the LDS church.

    2) “But despite Utah’s strong religious roots — it’s the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — most here support the use of the death penalty.” Ummm, at no time do the speak of the position of the LDS on capital punishment. My understanding is they are not against it. But that line is just stupid, because Saudi Arabia and Iran both have strong religious roots, and, well, you see where I am going with this…

    3) The AI representative’s quote is silly, too. It is not an Old Testament thing. It is, for the most part, not a religious thing. The people of Utah just support the death penalty. Probably not a theological matter for most of them.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    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.


  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I know anti-Mormon groups like to bring it [blood atonement] up to discredit the church but that’s it.

    I’ve seen them do that, too. (As a Gentile, I’m sorry.) It seems to me, though, that it might still be an echo of the same attitude, even if the original doctrine is condemned. The Church no longer practices Brigham Young’s primitive form of communism, either, but the Bishop’s Storehouse could be seen as a remnant of that.

  • Jettboy

    There is a difference between “the death penalty” and the “blood atonement” theological theory. There is nothing in LDS scripture that condemns the death penalty, and some that even support it; such as murder. So, if the LDS Church did make a statement I am pretty sure it won’t be against the death penalty. At least there wouldn’t be as strong a theological reasoning against it than for allowing it to be lawful.