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LAWYERS SAY GIRL’S KILLER A VICTIM OF LDS BELIEF

SHARE LAWYERS SAY GIRL’S KILLER A VICTIM OF LDS BELIEF

His lawyers say James Edward Wood is on death row in part because - like him - the girl he confessed to killing was a Mormon.

So was his public defender, some of the public defender's law partners and even the sentencing judge.That same judge is considering whether members of his faith placed loyalty to church and community above constitutional rights in rushing Wood toward execution.

His attorneys contend Wood is a victim of a Mormon belief in "blood atonement."

The doctrine, however, is officially disavowed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lawyers working to overturn Wood's guilty plea and death penalty insist the idea played a role in Mormons involved in his case, convincing Wood he must give up his life in restitution for the death of 11-year-old Jeralee Underwood.

Her parents, Jeff and Joyce Underwood, say Wood's attorneys are playing on prejudice against Mormonism as a faith outside the mainstream.

"If it was any other religion, it wouldn't even be brought up," Joyce Underwood said.

Sixth District Judge Lynn Winmill, who twice has been nominated to the Idaho Supreme Court, heard hours of testimony during the past week about Mormon doctrine on apostasy and forgiveness of sin. Wood's lawyers even asked the bishop who presided over the church disciplinary council that excommunicated Wood about LDS temple ceremonies, but Winmill did not require him to respond.

Wood, 46, confessed to abducting Jeralee Underwood on June 29, 1993, while she collected from customers on her newspaper route. He shot her to death the next day, sexually violated her body a week later, then cut it up and dumped it in the Snake River in Idaho Falls.

The career criminal with a history of robbery, rape and murder from Louisiana to Idaho professed to finding God in the Bannock County Jail. He pressed to bypass a preliminary hearing and trial to avoid making public the grisly details of what he did to Jeralee Underwood and soon after being sentenced asked that all his appeals be dropped so he could be executed quickly.

But he soon changed his mind, and his appellate attorneys say he might also have changed his mind about waiving a preliminary hearing and pleading guilty if the Mormons who handled his case had given him any hope. Even the lead investigator who spent countless hours interviewing Wood concluded he should have been sentenced only to life in prison without parole.

Instead, Boise lawyer Rolf Kehne says, Bannock County public defender Monte Whittier "thought he was doing Mr. Wood a favor by getting him the death penalty."

Kehne and co-counsel John Adams say the conflicts began with Whitter. One member of Whittier's law firm, Bryan Murray, had been a bishop in a LDS ward where Jeralee's father, Jeff, was elders quorum president. Another law partner, John Souza, had been a young men's president in the same ward.

They no longer were in the same ward when Jeralee Underwood was murdered, but police called them to the county jail when Wood was arrested to help break the news of their missing daughter's death to the Underwoods.

After the firm was assigned to represent Wood, Whittier testified he told Murray - who was closest to the Underwoods - to keep his distance. Murray, now a Bannock County magistrate, said he "strongly expressed the view that the firm should have nothing to do with representing Mr. Wood."

A week before last January's sentencing, Whittier accompanied law partner Thomas Clark and the president of the Underwoods' LDS stake to the jail to talk to Wood. Clark had recently become a ward bishop.

Whittier did not object while Clark and stake President Kert Howard talked to Wood about whether he could be forgiven for murdering Jeralee Underwood without giving up his own life. Whittier later said he did not know they wanted to talk to Wood about religion or that he was there as a member of the church.

And while Winmill was presiding over the sentencing phase of Wood's case, the judge also served in a local church leadership with Jeff Underwood and sometimes met with him.

Winmill has denied motions to disqualify himself because of the connection and during the weekend was considering whether he would let himself be questioned under oath by Wood's new lawyers.

While admitting he and Winmill occasionally had church leadership meetings together, Underwood insists he never discussed the case with the judge or any other Mormon involved.

To him, raising the church connection only confuses the issue - Wood murdered his little girl.

"Whether we're all members of the Elks Lodge or the Catholic religion or the LDS religion," Underwood said, "in this case, we've always kept that separate."