Questions: Did Brigham Young or the Church interfere with the trial of John D. Lee?

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Questions: Did Brigham Young or the Church interfere with the trial of John D. Lee?

Prosecutorial misconduct was likely responsible for the failure of the first trial

Critics charge that the institutional Church interfered with the first trial of John D. Lee and others to prevent convictions in 1875-1876. [1]

Prosecutorial misconduct was likely responsible for the failure of the first trial. Lee was not tied to any criminal conduct, and prosecutors' desire to blame Brigham Young—without evidence—for the massacre led to the trial's failure.

One reviewer described the difficulties with this theory:

Second hand evidence

Blood of the Prophets argues that the church was guilty of obstructing the prosecution of the 1875 and 1876 trials of John D. Lee. Yet Bagley errs in his analysis of the events of the trials. He fails, with a few exceptions for the first trial only, to rely upon the actual transcripts. Instead, he relies upon exposés. These secondhand accounts are not accurate and have serious errors of omission and editorial addition. In particular, I object to Bagley's reliance upon William Bishop's Mormonism Unveiled for the second trial. Bishop's stenographer dropped and changed testimony in places. Abraham Lincoln's biographers have recognized the difficulty of using press accounts as they reconstructed the accessory-after-the-fact trial of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth's leg. In contrast to Bagley, neither Brooks nor Leonard Arrington relied on press accounts for their analyses of the Lee trial. [2]

Blood of the Prophets also relies on the memoirs of Judge Jacob Boreman for his impressions of the trial. Except for perhaps the demeanor of witnesses, a judge's observations of witnesses could not add anything to the official transcript. Boreman's reminiscences demonstrate some real problems. With not a shred of evidence other than the speculation circulated by others, Boreman said he believed that high Mormon officials communicated death threats to witnesses of the massacre and that ordinary members of the church believed they were authorized to commit perjury by reason of the vows they took in the church's Endowment House. None of that is reflected in the trial transcript. Arrington opined that Boreman was prepared to believe the worst about the Mormons and that his naïveté made him clay in the hands of other federal anti-Mormon fanatics.

1875 trial

Turning to the events of the first trial in 1875, there is no evidence that the church obstructed justice. This trial mistried with a hung jury, to the universal denunciation of the church in the non-Mormon press. All Mormon jurors and one "backslider" voted to acquit. Three non-Mormons voted to convict (p. 296). Not a single witness tied Lee to any criminal activity, including former Mormon Bishop Philip Klingensmith, who turned state's evidence. The prosecutors, William C. Carey and Robert Baskin, used the trial to grandstand against Brigham Young. Even the [generally anti-Mormon] Salt Lake Daily Tribune admitted that the trial failure resulted from the prosecutors' "utter neglect of the business" and "disgraceful lethargy." [end of cited material]


  1. Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 217–235.; David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896 (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1998), 243–252. (bias and errors) Review; Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, (Secker & Warburg, 2003), 209.
  2. Robert D. Crockett, "A Trial Lawyer Reviews Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 199–254. off-site Headings and minor punctuation changes for clarity have been added; footnotes have been omitted. Readers are advised to consult the original review.