Firing squad as 'blood atonement?'

I guess GetReligion gets results. Last month, after a Utah death-row inmate chose a firing squad as his form of execution, I complained about the pitiful coverage of the religion angle. In the comments section, reader Chas Clifton brought up an angle that I had not even considered:

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?

Flash forward a few weeks, and this is the top of a meaty, 1,650-word story by The Salt Lake Tribune's Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack:

After convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner announced last month his intention to be executed by firing squad, national and international reporters suggested it was a throwback to the wild, wild West.

Some Utahns, though, had a different explanation for why such an anachronistic execution technique remained an option in the 21st century: blood atonement.

The term refers to an arcane LDS belief that a murderer must shed his own blood -- literally -- to be forgiven by God. Since Mormon pioneers first entered the valley in 1847 until today, most of Utah's formal executions (until recent decades) have been by firing squad, which is a lot bloodier than hanging or lethal injection.

When Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, began proposing elimination of the firing-squad option in the late 1990s, the LDS Church itself did not object. Yet talk of blood atonement percolated "in quiet, backroom discussions," she recalls. "A couple of people in prominent positions said to me, 'We've got to have blood atonement.' "

By 2004, Allen says, all mention of the Mormon concept "just went away" and the measure passed.

Religion News Service picked up Stack's story Monday and distributed a wire-length version for national use.

Now, we are much too modest to suggest that the discussion on GetReligion contributed to this excellent piece of journalism. Actually, no, we're not. But in this case, we really have no way of knowing, so we'll just throw the notion out there and see if it sticks. Smile.

In all seriousness, this story has it all: politics, history and, yes, religion. It's chock full of details that help the reader understand the meaning and significance of "blood atonement" in Mormon quarters -- in the past and now. Stack even digs up a quote from the death-row inmate himself that raises the possibility of blood atonement as a factor in his decision to choose a firing squad:

Even Gardner, who still could choose the firing squad for his scheduled June 18 execution because his original sentencing preceded the law change, told the Deseret News in 1996 that he would sue for the right to die that way.

"I guess it's my Mormon heritage," he told the paper.

I could go on, but I'd rather you just read the story. It's worth your time. Then come back here and let me know what I missed. Who knows -- we might inspire a follow-up.

After all, GetReligion gets results.

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