Joseph Smith's habeas corpus hearings dramatized in Illinois

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013 11:55 a.m. MDT

Old Capitol in Springfield, Ill., was finished in 1839, and thus would have been a recently constructed edifice when Joseph was in Springfield in early 1843 for extradition hearing.

Scott Lloyd

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. During the Nauvoo period of LDS Church history, the Prophet Joseph Smith was dogged by legal troubles stemming from the Missouri persecutions of 1838.

Now, his efforts to defend himself by using the legal doctrine of habeas corpus will be studied by school children and law students in Illinois. This is due to a remarkable partnership involving the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation, with involvement from Church History Department scholars and representatives of the Community of Christ and members of the legal community in Illinois.

On Sept. 24, at the Lincoln museum in downtown Springfield, four professional actors depicted three habeas corpus hearings involving the prophet Joseph Smith that took place in Illinois in the 1840s. This was followed by a panel discussion involving five distinguished legal experts, including Jeffrey N. Walker, senior adviser for the Joseph Smith Papers and managing director for its legal and business series. Brother Walker was largely responsible for the creation and leadership of the program.

The panel discussed the suspension of habeas corpus and its changing application in America from the 19th Century to today, including the use of the writ of habeas corpus for prisoners at Guntanamo Bay.

Introducing the program, Justice Rita B. Garman of the Illinois Supreme Court said, “We certainly extend our deepest thanks to the LDS Church for their help. We obviously could not have put this program together without their support.”

Justice Garman said the evening’s event “involves the intersection of two constitutional principles: the individual’s right to habeas corpus vs. the state’s right of extradition.”

She defined habeas corpus as “the right of an individual to be brought before a court and informed of the criminal charges against him or her and to contest false charges.”

“This long-established right was first under the English common law dating back to the magna charta. It’s embodied in the U.S. Constitution.”

She explained that extradition is the right of a state to request another state to transfer a criminal defendant to its jurisdiction where a crime allegedly occurred. “This extradition right is also set forth in the U.S. Constitution,” she added.

While the dramatic presentation was based on actual events from the 1830s and 1840s, “dialogue and scenes have been created for dramatic effect, including some involving Stephen A. Douglas, the great lawyer, jurist and statesman from Illinois.”

The character of Douglas was something of a narrator in the dramatic presentations, sometimes giving the audience the background of the hearings in which the Prophet was involved.

With no scenery, staging or special costuming, the actors depicted, in addition to Stephen Douglas and Joseph Smith, Church figures such as Sidney Rigdon, Reynolds Cahoon, William Clayton, Lyman Wight and Hyrum Smith; lawyers and jurists involved in the hearings, and other prominent figures such as Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs.

Of the three cases in which the Joseph Smith brought a writ of habeas corpus, the first was involved a warrant of arrest issued against the Prophet and others by Illinois Gov. Thomas Carlin seeking their extradition to Missouri on outstanding 1839 indictments.

Stephen Douglas, just 27 years old at the time, heard the case and discharged the defendants on a narrow procedural issue.

The second extradition attempt stemmed from an accusation against Joseph in an assassination attempt against Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs of Missouri, who had issued the infamous extermination order driving the Latter-day Saints from that state.

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