53: Mormonism and Capital Punishment

The recent execution of Troy Davis brought to the front once more the issue of capital punishment, especially arguments about the very real possibility of executing the wrong person, the unreliability of eye witness accounts, law enforcement pressures for conviction, and the possible brokenness of many of the safeguards that are in place to assure that miscarriages of justice at this ultimate level do not happen. This podcast uses this moment of reflection to discuss Mormon attitudes about the death penalty, and especially what social and theological aspects of Mormonism play into these attitudes. It discusses things such as agency and whether all persons are equally able to freely choose, the dubious doctrine of “blood atonement” that still lingers as a factor in some Mormons’ minds, as well as other LDS concepts and angles. It also discusses the deep spiritual resources some victims’ families are able to access to offer forgiveness to perpetrators.

We hope you will join Mormon Matters host, Dan Wotherspoon, and panelists Ken Driggs (an LDS death penalty lawyer who has worked on some 75 capital punishment cases), Heather Olson Beal, and Tom Grover for personal stories and important insights pertaining to this very sobering subject that deserves everyone’s careful attention.

After listening, please join in the discussion below!

_____

Links to articles mentioned in the podcast:

Ken Driggs:

Reflecting on the Death Penalty

Reflections of a Public Defender

Martin Gardner:

Mormonism and Capital Punishment: A Doctrinal Perspective, Past and Present

 

Comments

comments

30 comments for “53: Mormonism and Capital Punishment

  1. Jacob M
    September 28, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Interesting broadcast! The only concern I have with it is that there is no one on it who is pro-death penalty. It might have been a deeper discussion if you had an opposing viewpoint. Of course, it could have also been an argumentative disaster, too.

    I liked a lot of the points that were made, but I found the logic of the “if the death penalty wasn’t an option, it would force the families of the victims to deal with the trauma in possibly more productive ways ” to be problematic. That sounds too much like forcing a man to heaven to me.

    Lastly, the way I understand blood atonement, with which I freely acknowledge that my understanding might be different from Brigham’s, is that it relates to the price one has to pay for repentance. I thought of it like the restitution one must give to make repentance genuine, especially since in the case of murder there is no realistic restitution that can be given besides ones life. Now I’m not saying that is necessarily what I think or agree with, but just my understanding of what blood atonement means.

    • Stephen M (Ethesis)
      September 30, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      but I found the logic of the “if the death penalty wasn’t an option, it
      would force the families of the victims to deal with the trauma in
      possibly more productive ways ” to be problematic.

      Enough that I’ll skip the podcast.  Always appreciate it when someone else tells someone dealing with a death in their family how to deal with it and what is more productive.

      That said, in Texas a number of D.A.s would prefer “life without parole” because death penalty cases are so expensive and the delay is so long that it seems to defeat the entire purpose.

      • Dan Wotherspoon
        September 30, 2011 at 1:56 pm

        This issue of not telling others how to grieve was handled extremely carefully in the podcast, so skip or not but at least know that you are making a hasty judgment if this is your reason for not listening to this episode.

      • Heather
        September 30, 2011 at 8:49 pm

        Come on, Stephen M (Ethesis) . . . this is like all the BofM musical critics who’ve never seen the musical . . .

        At least listen to it and then come back to criticize if you’d like.  😉

      • October 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm

        Stephen: that particular argument takes up maybe 5 or 10 minutes of the overall podcast. As another commenter noted, this podcast isn’t an attempt to lay all of the death penalty cards out on the table. None of the representatives are pro-death penalty. (Several pro-DP arguments are noted, though not fully explored, however.) 

        That being said, this was a really interesting podcast to listen to. It touched on a lot of important LDS concepts including human nature, the nature of sin, the nature of human agency, the limitations of judgment, and the role human community (read: Zion or Babylon) plays in the ongoing formation of our souls. I was really impressed by the podcast. If you’re looking for a detailed analysis of pro et con, I suggest looking for books on the subject. 

        Podcasts as a format are more optimal at presenting stories, opinions, and personal perspectives than in laying out a.b.c. scholarship, which has its own place. 

        So I encourage you to check this podcast out. 

  2. Heather
    September 29, 2011 at 3:18 am

    Hi, Jacob M.  We tried and tried and tried to get someone who is pro-death penalty to be on the panel, but it didn’t work out. I agree that that would’ve made it a better discussion.  Still, I think there was a lot of good food for thought.

  3. Dan Wotherspoon
    September 29, 2011 at 3:26 am

    Anyone we had on would have become against it by the end!

  4. Jacob M
    September 29, 2011 at 6:30 am

    Thank you both for responding, and I figured that you might not have been able to arrange one to be on in time for the podcast. I also agree that there is much food for thought in the podcast as is. I’ve been thinking about it since I listened to it, and it has caused me to reevaluate some of my own personal positions on death penalty and the like. I still hold that it should be an option, but one that is used far less than it normally is, and I am very troubled by the racial aspects of who is executed or not. That is almost enough to dispatch with the death penalty, but it still seems to me that the victims family should be able to have that option if they desire. While it is true that they are not the only ones who suffer, I do think that they are the ones who are robbed the most of the potential of the victims life.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      September 29, 2011 at 11:28 pm

      Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for your comments! I didn’t have the time to respond to your earlier note–just enough time to add a quick-hit, smart-alecky comment after Heather had responded about our not having on someone who is pro-CP.I am interested in your sense about taking the death penalty option off the table being akin to forcing someone to heaven. I can both see your point but also possibly not really get why you see it that way. If the death penalty were not an option, no one would be forcing anyone to move toward forgiveness and healing of their own hearts. I think more loved ones would, since they’d more quickly get the sense that “closure” is up to them to find, rather than for the courts to deliver. And, as Ken says in the podcast, in the march toward the execution, families will be contacted many times by prosecutors and the press, each contact amounting to extra chances for the wounds to be re-aggravated. With life without parole, if a defendant isn’t contesting his or her innocence or wanting to try to get the sentence reduced, they’d simply be kept in prison with fewer reasons for their ever coming back into press or public consciousness. Of course some families WANT the additional contact, want to keep their loved one’s name in focus, want the attention to their own grief, but my guess is most don’t. Many countries don’t offer the death penalty option, and I’m sure there are many who keep choosing to dwell on hatred for the perpetrator and wishes for that person’s misery. No one forcing them to do otherwise. Am I missing part of what you are thinking here? Help!

      I think what you shared about your understanding of blood atonement is correct; that’s part of the reasoning many used in their thinking about the whys behind the doctrine. Thanks for adding that to the mix! For me the question blood atonement (especially that idea of restitution) is what I briefly offered in the podcast: We say the Atonement is “infinite” in its power, so either that idea must go or the doctrine of blood atonement (or at least this reasoning as to why it’s a true doctrine) must go. I’d prefer to keep the former, but I’m sure others would argue that restitution must always be forefronted.

      Next week’s podcast is on theories of the Atonement and why it “works” and/or is so powerful in many lives, so a lot of connections to ideas in this episode (as well as in the guilt and shame one) will be in that conversation, as well. Justice, mercy, and trying to satisfy both. Do substitution or “exchange” models work/ennoble? What else might be going on that we in Mormonism often fail to see? Etc. Hope you (and everyone else!) will tune in!

      • Jacob M
        September 30, 2011 at 12:18 am

        Than you for your response, again, and I admit that I chuckled at your quick hit remark. I now see a little clearer what you meant in the broadcast about forcing the victims family to seek closure outside the justice system by not having the death penalty on the table, and what you say now makes more sense to me than when I first listened. As a result, you can disregard my forced to heaven comment. You have explained your view well enough to where that critique is not valid. Thank you again for another good broadcast, and for finally posting those promised articles. 🙂

  5. Liz
    September 29, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    Loved this podcast.  Could you link to the various Dialogue articles that you referenced?  Thanks!

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      September 29, 2011 at 11:04 pm

      Ack! Can’t believe I forgot to do this! Links added to the post now. Thanks, Liz!

  6. Taylor
    October 4, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    What a great podcast.  I find the death penalty very disturbing and barbaric.  I’m glad to see other Mormons who agree.  I thought that the panelists were extremely thoughtful and articulate.  I’m always impressed with Mormon Matters.  Keep it up!

  7. TopHat
    October 4, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    I just finished listening and thought I’d share the unhappy news that the idea of capital punishment being the only way to redeem some sins is still being taught in church from time to time. When we lived in Provo, we definitely got that lesson in Sunday School. That might have been the last time we had Old Testament (5 years ago) or Book of Mormon (3 years ago). Definitely shocked me and I wasn’t the kind of person to speak up at that time, but now I wish I had.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm

      Bummer, TopHat. Thanks for sharing. More work for all of us! Excited that you’re feeling more prepared to share if happens again. Best to you!

  8. Jacob Brown
    October 6, 2011 at 3:20 am

    Capital punishment is clearly condoned by the story of Nehor recorded in the first chapter of Alma. The rationalization put forth by Dan that was from a general authority (that the LDS could be impartial to capital punishment when outside the jurisdiction of theocratic rule) doesn’t even hold up for the story of Nehor.

    The government in this case was clearly separate from the church. This chapter alone uses many words to make this clear. Alma acting as a government official called for the execution of Nehor because he killed Gideon. The law of capital punishment was given by King Mosiah, and it was “acknowledged” (is this democracy?) by the people. The account went so far as to describe the execution as ignominious.

    Verse 13 is especially enlightening when read with an understanding of blood atonement. Here, Alma is speaking to Nehor directly:

    “And thou hast shed the blood of a righteous man, yea, a man who has done much good among his people; and were we to spare thee his blood would come upon us for vengeance” (Alma 1:13).

    Seems like there is a moral obligation for vengeance. This would be in harmony with the teaching of blood atonement. Sounds like the oaths taken by the early saints in the temple as well for Joseph’s death.

    The discussion in the podcast never got to deterrence, but Alma 42:19 directly states that this is a driving reason for capital punishment for murderers: “Now, if there was no law given–if a man murdered he should die–would he be afraid ho would die if he should murder?”

    D&C 132:27 says that “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder . . . after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant.” So that knocks a hole in the “infinite atonement” concept. To make it even more confusing, murder and infinite atonement are used in the same verse at Alma 34:12:

    “But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.”

    Can anyone tell me what this even means? I’m gonna have to think about it.

    D&C 134:8 says that the “commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense….” and so forth. Reading the whole thing, this verse could be taken as a statement that the punishment should be commensurate with the crime, i.e., murderers should be killed.

    I wish the podcast discussion was more based in the scriptures. This is where the real tension arises. I guess using scriptures like these would have been the best substitute for having the participation of a pro-death penalty member.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 6, 2011 at 5:47 am

      Interesting comment with tons of different angles. If I’m reading it right, you’re not trying to offer a consistent argument, which is fine. My equally scattered responses:

       It was Elder McConkie who wrote about blood atonement only being something the church would condone if society were under a righteous theocratic rule. Not sure a direct tie to capital punishment.Interesting on Nehor. BofM folks, if historical, are people thinking out of Old Testament paradigms, and this section would be consistent with ideas from that period. I appreciate those ideas as part of the broad heritage from which Mormonism draws, but just as Latter-day Saints don’t generally feel bound by most of the rest of the ancient code, I can acknowledge the ideas as within the general tradition and am glad to have them raised in the discussion here yet really not seeing them as needing to have any pull on my views about capital punishment today. 

      Same basic response to the idea that vengeance seems to be something God places as part of human moral obligations.

      Deterrence has all but fallen completely away as an argument for keeping capital punishment, and it feels like a bit of an equivocation to bring it into dialogue here. Whatever the power Alma’s argument has seems to me to come only in a society where every murder would for sure lead to execution, which is certainly not the case in our society. 

      Amulek is all over the map in Alma 34 for sure! I tend to like his claims that no one can transfer their sins to another, and the parts I cited about how the intent of the Atonement is to spur us to feel like we can repent, but I definitely don’t use anything there as any kind of proof text.

      Interesting with D&C 134 passage! 

      Agree that more scriptural playing would have been fun and might have taken us down some different roads. Thanks for raising some of that here!

  9. Jacob Brown
    October 6, 2011 at 11:52 am

    After thinking a bit about Alma 34:12, I wondered if maybe it meant that before Christ’s sacrifice the law was required to demand the life of murderers. Then in the time after Christ’s infinite atonement, one could argue that it was not necessary any more. The suffering of Jesus makes that retribution unnecessary. And really, if you look through the Book of Mormon most of the references related to capital punishment are for murderers and most/all of them occur before the coming of Christ to the New World.

    This sounds great, but I think based on other evidence of early Mormon history that it is difficult to assume that capital punishment was part of the lesser Mosaic Law that was done away with at the sacrifice of Jesus. In the “History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” edited by B. H. Roberts, there is a section on a debate between Joseph Smith, Jr and George A. Smith (Joseph’s cousin) about whether people should be hung or put in prison. George A. Smith argued that it was better to put people in prison than hang them. Joseph is recorded as saying:

    “I replied, I was opposed to hanging, even if a man kill another, I will shoot him, or cut off his head, spill his blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God; and if ever I have the privilege of making a law on the subject, I will have it so” (Volume V, Chapter XVI).

    What is really interesting to me is that 50 people have been executed in Utah since 1950. and 1,226 people have been executed in Texas since about 1819. Texas has executed 11 people already this year, and they executed 17 last year. Maybe people are much better behaved in Utah.

    I’m pretty much opposed to the death penalty. I think we are much more merciful in how we do it these days, but I don’t think I could kill anyone except in a fit of rage maybe. The point of my comment above was that I just feel like there is really very little doctrinal basis in Mormonism for dismissing the death penalty.

    I would say the anxiousness about it probably comes from outside Mormonism and not from inside. It’s just part of the moral zeitgeist. I would also say the same things about racism, gender equality, etc. I’m sure you could come up with scriptures and conference talks that address these issues in accordance with the moral zeitgeist, but I would say that’s mostly just a sign of a healthy left brain or evidence of the gradual conformity of the church to the moral mainstream. Of course, we can’t admit conformity to the host society. We’ll have to wash away the past or have a revelation. I’m betting on the former.

  10. Dan Wotherspoon
    October 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Wow, terrific and insightful comments, Jacob! Thanks, so much! 

    Just as the BofM figures, if historical, are thinking out of OT models, in many ways I see Joseph Smith being a product of his time and place, influenced by the thinking around him and the forms of justice playing out there in the east as well as on the frontiers. And at the same time operating out of a Restorationist paradigm and constantly pondering which of the OT ideas (and in the case of blood of victims calling up to heaven as smoke also in the NT) he needed to be preserve or reinvigorate in his call to bring about a “restoration of all things.” Truly he is an interesting figure!

    I think you’re right that more Mormon scripture and prophetic utterance would support the death penalty were it to be justly administered, and that most of us who struggle with it come to our positions via influence from thinkers and emphases outside the LDS tradition (as well as the obviously inconsistent and unfair way it is handled in our justice system). And like what I think you’re at least suggesting in your final paragraph, I think it is very important for our tradition’s health that we bring positions, no matter where they originate, into dialogue with our faith and history. It’s the only way for our tradition to remain vital and relevant and for the Restoration to continue (I’m of the opinion, with B.H. Roberts, that the work of the Restoration has just begun and that everyone of us has a role to play in its unfolding, in taking the “germ truths” and giving them more forceful expression). Essential steps to growth are to formulate questions, engage them, and let the sifting of such engagement show you the strongest position. True for institutions and individuals. 

    When I start into discussions like the one we’re having here and that also took place in the Atonement episode of the podcast, I worry sometimes that I will be seen as someone who simply “dismisses” scripture and prophetic utterances when they aren’t convenient to me and my arguments. I hope that’s not the case, because for me it simply feels like the natural progress of healthy psychological differentiation and coming into confidence about trusting my own experiences and the processes I’ve gone through to weigh them over those ideas (always incompletely rendered and understood) of others from different times, places, and cultural and temperamental and autobiographical backgrounds. I love being in dialogue with all of those scriptures and voices, but as someone who doesn’t only listen to and find compelling just one side of most arguments, I still somehow think I’m working at this business of growth and maturing in a spiritually and intellectually sound way. Hence my willingness here and in other places to risk exposure for how I view scripture and past utterances while still maintaining a strong connection to Mormonism. Happy to be called on it, though…

    Again, brilliant comments. Thank you for joining this discussion!

  11. Phoe
    October 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Firstly, let me just state that I love these podcasts. They have greatly helped me to understand and appreciate nuances of Mormon doctrine, culture and folklore. Dan, you’re my hero!

    My beef with this subject is that the discussion about Mormonism and Capital punishment was very USA centric (for obvious reasons). I’m from Northern Europe  and am very much opposed to any form of government sponsored murder. So, while the discussion was very good and interesting it didn’t touch, in my opinion, so much how LDS members in general feel or should feel about death penalty but rather how Americans that are Mormons feel about death penalty.

    I understand and appreciate that the podcast really is targeted to Americans and as such have little resources or interest to probe the feelings of members around the globe. So please take this as a friendly reminder that great number of members live in countries that have abolished death penalty decades if not centuries ago. Having said that, I would be very interested to learn what LDS members in countries that do not have death penalty think about the subject. I have no idea beyond what my circle of friends thinks about it (which is 100% against). My gut feeling is that because of blood atonement and various other obscure teachings LDS members might be more open to it than surrounding population in general but I might be completely wrong (and hope to be).

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      Thank you, Phoe! We need reminders like this! For some time, I’ve been mulling possible topics that would be great to talk about with Saints outside the U.S.  Glad to put this on the list. And watch out as I may contact you to hear more ideas!

  12. October 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Dan and the other participants of this episode: Thanks so much for sharing your perspectives on this topic. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Wish a pro-death penalty perspective could have chimed in, and a little more examination of our canon would have been great. That said, the episode still offers plenty of food for thought.  

    • March 15, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      *a pro-death penalty perspective, so that it could be responded to directly, I should add. I’ve thought about this episode every other month or so, and it has served to help me feel more confident in my own opposition to the death penalty.

  13. March 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I like louis vuitton handbags,the women louis vuitton handbag is fashion,if you like,you can enter my web
    http://www.mylouisvuittonuk.org

  14. JeremiahA
    April 5, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for another excellent podcast on a very difficult subject. The information about “blood atonement” really held my attention since the concept was not what I would have expected from a Christian church that believes in the atoning power of Christ.

    It appears that the objections to the death penalty are based on whether the punishment is applied fairly rather than the penalty itself. In other words, that there needs to be improvement at the level of the process of adjudication in making any determination of guilt more trustworthy.

    Would taking the death penalty “off the table” help expedite the healing of the victim’s family? Well, possibly no for a few reasons. One, the victim’s family is aware every day that while their family member is dead, the murderer still lives. Two, a life sentence is unjust since their loved one lost their life and the perpetrator only lost their liberty. Three, a governor or a state program may release or furlough the killer at any time in the future or the person may escape. And four, the killer has the ability to kill again, whether inside or outside the prison. With or without capital punishment, the victim’s family will find many barriers to their healing.

    Thank you once again for this podcast and I am looking forward to listening to future episodes!

    • Andrea Ball
      March 15, 2015 at 3:34 am

      I am too, having just stumbled on it — I almost said accidentally, but I don’t believe in accidents and think God has His reasons for allowing us to come across things.

  15. JBS
    February 26, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    I am reminded of a 1977 song by Anshelm Spring who is (or at least was at the time) Mormon, on an album called “Ich bin”. The song is called Gary Gilmore, after a murderer in Utah who requested his own execution, which occurred Jan. 1977. The lyrics are German, but roughly translated say in part: Why, cried the pious [to God] should Gary Gilmore’s blood come upon us? God answers: Not because you [society] killed him, but because you rejoiced at his death.

    • Andrea Ball
      March 15, 2015 at 3:32 am

      What a powerful song! It really is sobering to think about how God looks at the attitudes of our hearts. What’s even more sobering is how bloodlust has figured in our own history of lynchings, which is not something we like to think about and perhaps wish it would go away.

  16. Andrea Ball
    March 15, 2015 at 3:22 am

    What a powerful podcast! I was deeply moved by the story of the young girls from the Huntsville ward who went to the Hospitality House to visit with the families of death row inmates. That, indeed, is all that is good about the Gospel. I am not Lds but read avidly about Mormon history and theology and think the podcast explored the theological tensions between agency and inability to make choices, between justice and mercy and between understandings of blood atonement and Christ’s infinite atonement well. What also came through most forcefully to me was compassion for the families of both death row inmates and the families of murder victims, and care for the poor and dispossessed who may find themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system. I am wondering if you had considered sharing this podcast with Bill Pelke at Journey of Hope. Like me, he is United Methodist and continues to bring people together and has lost a loved one to murder. I will continue to listen to your podcast and thanks for provoking much thought and opening my own understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *