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Joseph Smith's habeas corpus hearings dramatized in stage play

Published: Wednesday, March 26 2014 2:35 p.m. MDT

The character of Stephen A. Douglas, the well-known Illinois lawyer, jurist and statesman, was the narrator, sometimes giving the audience the background of the hearings in which Joseph Smith was involved. Some dramatic license was taken, but the portrayals were based on actual events of the three habeas corpus hearings on extradition attempts by the state of Missouri.

In the first hearing, a warrant of arrest had been issued against Joseph Smith by Gov. Carlin of Missouri on 1839 Missouri indictments, and the case was heard in Springfield before Douglas. The Prophet, through attorneys, contended he was unlawfully taken into custody and the indictment was obtained by fraud, bribery and duress.

Douglas ordered the Prophet released but made his ruling on a narrow procedural issue that the warrant itself was invalid. This disappointed the Prophet, who wanted the ruling made on the facts of the indictments. But the result was that he was freed.

The second extradition attempt stemmed from an assassination attempt against former Gov. Boggs on May 6, 1842. No suspects were found, but Boggs, wounded in the attack, stated in an affidavit that he believed Joseph Smith to be “an accessory before the fact” in orchestrating the assassination attempt.

The 1843 case was argued in Springfield before Judge Nathaniel Pope, who found that the affidavit did not establish fact. Joseph Smith was again freed.

Douglas was depicted as testifying that he had been in Nauvoo and in the presence of Joseph Smith at the time the assassination was attempted. In actuality, as Walker explained later during the panel discussion, Douglas did not testify, but he did sign an affidavit in the presence of Judge Pope.

The third extradition attempt was for alleged crimes including treason, arising from the 1838 conflict with Missouri mobs.

The hearing was held in Joseph Smith’s red brick Store in Nauvoo, Ill., after attempts by a Missouri sheriff and constable to take him to the state failed through a series of events.

The portrayal of the hearing included gripping dialogue about the atrocities and injustices suffered by the Latter-day Saints in Missouri.

In addition to Walker, participants in the panel discussion included Dee Benson, U.S. district court judge for Utah; Patricia A. Bronte, a Chicago attorney who has served as habeas corpus counsel for several men detained at Guantanamo Bay; John A. Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission; and moderator Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.

Under Chico’s leadership, the production has been developed into a 12-week curriculum to be used in all high schools and middle schools in Illinois next year.

At the beginning of the performance, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke addressed the audience, explaining that this is the third in an annual series of events put on by the sponsoring organizations. The previous two were a depiction of a retrial for Mary Surrat, the first woman executed by the federal government, accused in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and for Mary Todd Lincoln in her 1875 insanity hearing brought by her son Robert due to her erratic behavior.

“Our primary purpose in these trials and hearings is to educate the public about historical issues that pertain to our modern-day lives,” Burke said. “By studying our past, we learn about our present and gather the necessary information to make informed decisions for the future.”

It is important, she said, to educate today’s students about the law.

“This evening’s event,” she said, “involves the intersection of two constitutional principles: the individual’s right of habeas corpus versus the state’s right of extradition.”

Email: rscott@deseretnews.com

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