Firing Squad Sparks Talk of Mormon 'Blood Atonement'

After convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner announced 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 Mormon belief that a murderer must shed his own blood -- literally -- to be forgiven by God. Since Mormon pioneers first arrived in 1847, most formal executions (until recent decades) have been by firing squad, which is a lot bloodier than hanging or lethal injection.

When state Rep. Sheryl Allen began proposing eliminating the firing-squad option in the late 1990s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself did not object. Yet talk of blood atonement percolated "in quiet, backroom discussions," she recalled.

"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. The LDS Church disavows any connection to blood atonement, says spokesman Scott Trotter.

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