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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy