Remains of abducted BYU student found

Authorities in Corvalis, Oregon, announced yesterday that they had found and identified the remains of Brooke Wilberger, a 19-year-old BYU student who disappeared in the Spring of 2004. At the time of her disappearance, Wilberger had been helping her sister clean the lamp posts of the apartment complex her sister and brother-in-law maintained near the Oregon State University campus.

The case was unusual in that a search commenced almost immediately. Law enforcement officials usually wait a few days before searching for a missing adult because adults have the autonomy to come and go as they please, but the Corvalis authorities agreed with family members that the straight-laced BYU coed was not the sort of young woman to disappear on her own. Despite the early and large-scale search and national headlines, Wilberger was not located no one reported having seen her.

Another unusual element of the case was the fact that Wilberger’s long-time boyfriend was immediately ruled out as a suspect. Significant others are frequently prime suspects in disappearance cases, but Wilberger’s boyfriend had an iron-clad alibi: he was in Venezuela serving as a Mormon missionary.

Eventually the investigation led to Joel Courtney, who was already doing 18 years in New Mexico for the kidnapping and rape of a college student in that state. Wilberger’s DNA and hairs were found in Courtney’s van, and Courtney was to go on trial in 2010 for the kidnapping and attempted rape and murder of two other Oregon State coeds, an incident that occurred on the same day Wilberger disappeared.

Yesterday Joel Courtney entered a guilty plea for the aggravated murder of Brooke Wilberger in order to avoid the death penalty. He received a life sentence without parole. As part of his plea, Courtney disclosed the location of Wilberger’s body, which police later confirmed. Courtney’s plea provides some closure to Wilberger’s family, who have waited more than five years to know what happened to their daughter.

Tithing and ill-gotten gains

Val Southwick, the CEO of VesCor who is in prison for swindling investors out of more than $180 million. The scheme took in many people  in Utah, and many of the victims and at least some of the perpetrators are members of the Mormon Church. Last week the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Southwick had paid over $200,000 to the LDS Church in tithing, and that the LDS Church was now returning that money to be part of the restitution to the victims.

U.S. District Court filings show Val Southwick paid The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints $202,761.74 between 2001 and 2006.

In 2008, the LDS Church Corporation of the Presidency agreed to return the money as part of a Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement action.

I don’t imagine $200,000 will go very far when the total amount stolen is more than $180,000 million, but it’s better than nothing. I note that $200,000 in 10% tithing would indicate an income of about $2 million over the course of seven years. It seems very unlikely that Southwick only kept $2 million of the $180 million for himself, so it sounds like he was lying to his church as well as his investors. What a guy.

The Salt Lake Tribune article noted that LDS Church spokesperson Scott Trotter says the LDS Church has a policy of not profiting from alleged ill-gotten gains. I find it interesting that the Church rejects donations derived from allegedly ill-gotten gains. To some degree this policy delegates authority to law enforcement officers and prosecutors. In this case, the initial determination of wrong-doing was made by a prosecutor or SEC officer, not the LDS Church. But the policy seems like a prudent one to me, both in terms of practicality and perception.

What is the Mormon view of capital punishment?

Twice in the last week the death penalty has come up in conversation, and it got me thinking about it. The first was actually in a job interview: I recently applied to a government position that required occasional work on habeus actions, including some capital cases. The interviewer said the office had used conscience waivers in the past, but they were difficult to coordinate. I honestly hadn’t given the death penalty much thought prior to that moment. In fact, I have been pretty agnostic on the subject. I don’t really oppose it, but the death penalty isn’t something I cheer about.

The topic came up again over the weekend as various news media outlets around the Southeast began to report on the jury selection process in a high-profile kidnapping-rape-murder trial of a Knoxville couple. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all four defendants. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all four defendants, and the cases are generating a enough controversy in Knoxville that the jury had to be picked from another city

My own ambivalence as to the death penalty doesn’t mean other Mormons don’t have strong feelings on the matter. Many Mormons feel that that capital punishment is inconsistent with Christian doctrines of forgiveness and mercy. Others oppose it because they feel that we should not judge in matters of life and death.

On the other hand, there are apparently some Mormons who believe in a theory of “blood atonement,” where forgiveness of some sins can only be obtained by execution. There is some disagreement about what “blood atonement” means, but that’s the gist of it. Clint wrote a post last February about a murder trial in Ogden, Utah, in which the defense attorney sought to exclude all Mormons from the jury who might believe in a “blood atonement.” I’ve never known anyone who espoused this theory, but it apparently comes from a few statements made by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders in the 19th Century. The theory definitely hasn’t been taught in Mormon congregations in my lifetime, but it may have had some support as recently as fifty years ago. Take, for example, this excerpt from Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation:

“Man may commit certain grievous sins… that will place him beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ…. If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent. Therefore their only hope is to have their own blood shed to atone…” (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 1, pp. 133-138)

I should note that this statement doesn’t necessarily advocate capital punishment. It could just as well be interpreted as saying that forgiveness will have to wait until after an individual’s death. Such an interpretation might not even be contrary to current Mormon teachings. But at least some people take it to mean that the death penalty should be administered in certain cases. Bruce R. McConkie also references the “blood atonement” theory by name in his oft-quoted Mormon Doctrine.

I notice that both Doctrines of Salvation and Mormon Doctrine aren’t official publications of the Mormon Church, and both are known to include teachings that are disavowed by Mormon leaders. But both works are still used with some regularity by some Mormons, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that some people would still believe in the blood atonement theory.

After my interview I thought about my opinion on capital punishment, and out of curiosity, I looked up the LDS Church’s official statement on the subject. The official position is almost as ambivalent as my own:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.

That official statement seems to expressly disavow any dogma that advocates the death penalty for certain offenders. I can’t find any good information as to whether the “blood atonement” theory was ever an official doctrine of the LDS Church, but it seems safe to say that it isn’t now. I also think it’s safe to say that this belief is a rarity within Mormonism. If it was ever more prevalent among American Mormons, that has changed as Mormonism has evolved into a world religion. The majority of the membership of the Mormon Church lives outside the United States, and most countries do not even allow capital punishment.