The infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, inscrutable enough just on the basis of the known facts, has been clouded over the past century and a half by myths and misconceptions.
Some such myths surround the 1875 and 1876 trials of John D. Lee, the only man ever tried and convicted for his role in the 1857 mass murder of Arkansas emigrants near Cedar City, Utah, by Mormon militia men.
In a May 22 session at the 44th annual Mormon History Association Conference meeting this year in Springfield, Robert H. Briggs, an attorney from Fullerton, Calif., and an author of articles on the massacre, appraised Lee's first trial.
The trials, the first of which ended in a hung jury, "presented a legal proceeding with implications far beyond the guilt or innocence of the individual defendant, a case in which the fate of the accused was threatened with being overwhelmed by larger issues and conflicts."
He called it "a case in which irreconcilably divided parties strenuously advanced positions to further their particular interests while all the while interpreting the trial through the prism of their own interests."
Brother Briggs said that for non-Mormons in the territory who opposed the Church's political dominance, the massacre was "Exhibit A" for what they regarded as "Mormon lawlessness."
The strategy of the prosecution was to establish links in the massacre to Church leaders in Salt Lake City, he said. "If they could implicate George A Smith [an apostle], that would be great, because that would just put them one step away from Brigham Young." In this, the judge who presided allowed them quite a bit of latitude, he added.
The jury was empaneled with eight Mormons and four "gentiles," and from the beginning, all sides recognized the probability that the case would end with a hung jury, Brother Briggs said.
Newspaper reporters at the trial scene sent dispatches mostly by telegraph, and the story was disseminated in every state in country, he said. "The prosecution, anticipating that they would receive much favorable coverage, and realizing that they might have a hung jury, made the very sagacious decision to try the case to the broader court of public opinion, which they were very successful at."
The trial ended with eight Mormons and one gentile voting to acquit and the other jury members to convict.
"Why did no Mormon juror vote to convict Lee?" he asked. In response he said that prosecutor Robert Baskin's closing argument went way beyond the issue of Lee's guilt and said the Mormon hierarchy was responsible, that the Mormons had a religious duty to shed blood, that Mormon men laid down their manhood when they became members of the Church by following the leaders.
"He has a whole section in there in which he says, 'I arraign Brigham Young.' "
Brother Briggs said Baskin insulted the Mormon men in the jury relative to their having made temple covenants.
"The strategy succeeded brilliantly," he commented. "During the otherwise slow months of 1875, the dramatic trial testimony had transfixed the nation. The Mormons', and particularly Brigham Young's, public reputation had declined precipitously. The Liberals [a political party in the state] were able to exploit the fact that despite the strong evidence of Lee's wrongdoing, the 'guilty' had failed to convict him. And the fact that not a single Mormon juror voted for conviction reinforced the widely held perception of the Mormon laity as a dupe of the Mormon hierarchy."
He concluded, "The Lee trials, particularly the first one, played a pivotal role in fomenting the national moral crusade that eventually transformed Utah's society, and politics and economy."