The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not oppose elimination of the firing squad for executing death-row inmates.
Church spokesman Dale Bills said a one sentence statement saying that the church "has no objection to the elimination of the firing squad in Utah" was provided Wednesday to the Utah Sentencing Commission, which is studying how to get rid of the firing squad method of execution and replacing it with lethal injection.
Paul Boyden, a commission member and executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said the church's statement was requested to clear up any lingering questions on whether church doctrine would require a firing squad under the early Mormon teaching of "blood atonement."
In its definition of blood atonement, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism says several early church leaders, including Brigham Young, taught that in "a complete theocracy the Lord could require the voluntary shedding of a murderer's blood — presumably by capital punishment — as part of the process of atonement for such grievous sin."
But the encyclopedia and past church statements say this was never a doctrine of the church nor has it been practiced by the church at any time.
Still, Boyden said recent letters to the editor indicate some still believe the firing squad is necesary for religious reasons and the commission wasn't sure how widespread that belief could be.
"If we hadn't (asked for the church's position), this probably would have been a question among some legislators and it may have not made it out of committee," Boyden said.
The Utah Sentencing Commission plans to formally recommend to the state Legislature elimination of the firing squad and adoption of lethal injection as the only method of execution.
Utah is the only state that uses the firing squad method, although Idaho and Oklahoma retain it as an option if other methods are not viable.
Utah also is one of seven states that permit a person convicted of a capital crime to select how he or she will die.
While the church's statement was requested, Boyden said the commission's discussion Wednesday largely centered on the topic of whether making the switch to lethal injection could cause delays for convicted murderers who had previously chosen the firing squad.
"The question is, do we create a situation where somebody on death row could create a delay by appealing on the grounds that they're entitled to be shot rather than executed by lethal injection?" Boyden said.
All members of the commission favor moving to the lethal injection method as soon as possible to stop the "media circus" that surrounds firing squad executions, Boyden said.
By choosing the firing squad, "the defendant has the opportunity to be somewhat in control and create a media circus," Boyden said. "In Utah, the firing squad is not big news, but both nationally and internationally it is."
The situation also permits a person convicted of capital murder to "focus attention on himself rather than the victims or the heinous deeds he has committed," Boyden said.
"The real issue is whether we would create any possible delay in executions — would we give death-row inmates an issue for appeal," Boyden said. "We're pretty confident that they'd never succeed on appeal. We've reviewed case law. The only question is whether the court process in sorting those issues out would cause a delay, which is something we would not want to do."
The commission members agreed to table the matter for now and ask the Utah Attorney General's Office for more input and will arrange to discuss the issue further at its October meeting.