Ronnie Lee Gardner shot and killed an attorney in Salt Lake City in 1985. Convicted and sentenced to death, Mr. Gardner is finally nearing the end of his appeals processes. As he faces the reality of his execution, as allowed by Utah law, he has chosen death by firing squad.
The current news focus on Ronnie Lee Gardner’s fate brings up an interesting point of Utah (and therefore Mormon) history. Employing a method of capital punishment that sheds the condemned person’s blood is somewhat unique to Utah. Though Utah law changed in 2004 to disallow future executions by firing squad, Ronnie Lee Gardner’s 1985 conviction predated that law. Therefore, he was given the choice of lethal injection or death by firing squad.
According to Martin R. Gardner (no relation that I’m aware of), the early “capital punishment law in Utah was a product of Mormon lawmakers influenced by Mormon doctrine” (“Mormonism and Capital Punishment: A Doctrinal Perspective, Past and Present,” Dialog, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1979, p. 9). Martin Gardner wrote,
“Existence of the firing squad solely in Utah is no coincidence but instead is a consequence of an attempt by early legislators to effectuate religious belief through the capital punishment law of the state. Mormon justifications of capital punishment were intricately related to blood atonement, a doctrine requiring shedding blood as expiation for certain sins…
“However, the doctrine of blood atonement posits that man can commit some sins so heinous that Christ’s sacrifice is unavailing, but the offender himself may partially atone for his sin by sacrificing his life in a way which literally sheds his blood. The spilling of blood is required because blood is viewed as possessing symbolic religious significance. ‘The man who commits murder, who imbues his hands in the blood of innocence, cannot receive eternal life because he cannot get forgiveness of that sin. What can he do? The only way to atone is to shed his blood'” (pp. 9-10, quoting Charles Penrose, Blood Atonement, p. 21, 1916).
Martin Gardner explained that the LDS doctrine of blood atonement was most fully developed by Brigham Young, who said,
“‘There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilled upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such were not the case, they would stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world…
“‘It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet, men can commit sins which it can never remit… There are sins that can be atoned for… [only] by the blood of the man'” [p. 11, quoting Brigham Young, “The People of God Disciplined by Trials,” “Atonement by the Shedding of Blood etc.,” Journal of Discourses, 4:51, 53, 54, 1856).
Another early Mormon leader, Jedediah Grant, taught,
“But if the Government of God on earth, and Eternal Priesthood, with the sanction of High Heaven, in the midst of all his people, has passed sentence on certain sins when they appear in a person, has [sic] not the people of God a right to carry out that part of his law as well as any other portion of it? It is their right to baptize a sinner to save him, and it is also their right to kill a sinner to save him, when he commits those crimes that can only be atoned for by shedding his blood. If the Lord God forgives sins by baptism, and…certain sins cannot be atoned for…but by the shedding of the blood of the sinner, query, whether the people of God be overreaching the mark, if they should execute the law… We would not kill a man, of course, unless we killed him to save him” (Deseret News, July 27, 1854, p. 2, col. 1).
So when the territorial government was established in 1851 for the state of Deseret,
“…the General Assembly of the state of Deseret, controlled by members of the Council of Fifty, adopted a criminal code that imposed capital punishment for the crime of murder: ‘Be it further ordained, that when any person shall be found guilty of murder, under any of the preceding sections of this ordinance, and sented [sic] to die, he, she or they shall suffer death by being shot, hung or beheaded'” (p. 12).
The LDS First Presidency in 1851 (Brigham Young, Jedediah M. Grant, and Heber C. Kimball), all advocates of blood atonement, were directly involved in establishing beheading and the firing squad as Utah law. Beheading was dropped as an execution option in 1888, but the firing squad option remained as Utah’s primary method of execution until 2004.
In his paper, Martin Gardner demonstrated the fact that many Mormon leaders have understood the allowance of firing squads in Utah law to be a provision for legally accomplishing blood atonement.
“To quote B.H. Roberts: ‘Latter-day Saints believe that where secular government prescribes capital punishment it is better that such form of execution be adopted as will shed the blood of the criminal; hence in Utah, when the Latter-day Saints, in their capacity as citizens of the state have made the laws, condemned criminals, subject to capital punishment, are permitted to choose their mode of execution either by being hung or shot, the latter mode, or course, resulting in the shedding of their blood, thus meeting the requirement of the law of God as well as the law of the state’ [quoting Comprehensive History of the Church 4:129 n. 41].
“Joseph Fielding Smith concluded that Mormon legislators wrote capital punishment provisions into the laws of Utah so the offender could ‘have his blood shed in harmony with the law of God; and thus atone so far as it is in his power, for the death of his victim’ [quoting Doctrines of Salvation, 1:136, 137]” (p. 15).
The LDS Church today does not support the early Mormon doctrine of blood atonement and offered no objection to the change in Utah law that excluded the firing squad from its modes of execution. Once again modern Mormonism shows itself at odds with the early Restoration and the teachings of founding LDS prophets and apostles.
Martin Gardner related a telling incident from 1849 wherein Brigham Young called for the beheading of an offender:
“Minutes of secret meetings of the Council [of Fifty] show that the doctrine of blood atonement was discussed, at least in passing, by the Council before adoption of the 1851 capital punishment law. [Endnote 29: For example, on March 3, 1849, the council discussed the cases of Ira West and Thomas Byres who had committed crimes serious enough to arouse Brigham Young to say, ‘I want their cursed heads to be cut off that they may atone for their sins, that mercy may have her claims upon them in the day of redemption.’ On the following day the council agreed that Ira West had ‘forfeited his Head.’] Given the political influence of the Council and its commitment to blood atonement, the sudden and novel emergence of beheading and the firing squad in the law of Utah seems to be a religious phenomenon” (p. 14).
One can’t help but wonder at this teaching and behavior of men claiming to be true prophets of God when God Himself, in His Holy Word, said that Jesus’ shed blood on the cross is the full and final sacrifice for all sins for those who believe. Humanity is no longer enslaved under the Old Covenant requiring personal and repetitive sacrificial offerings as atonement for sins. Christ has ushered in the New Covenant, secured by the once-for-all shedding of His own blood on our behalf.
Did Brigham Young, et al., fail to understand the New Covenant provision of Christ’s sacrifice? Or were they just convinced that it wasn’t sufficient? Perhaps they should have read (and believed) Hebrews chapters 9 and 10.