Nearly 170 years ago, Mormon founder Joseph Smith found himself fending off efforts to extradite him from Illinois to Missouri, where he was facing a charge of treason and attempted assassination.
The legal tool Smith used to defend himself was the notion of "habeas corpus" and that a judge must determine whether there is enough evidence to hold an accused criminal.
Last week, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and Illinois Supreme Court Preservation Commission, staged a re-enactment of the three Smith habeas corpus hearings, and then a panel discussion on how the use of habeas corpus has developed during the past two centuries – with "Joseph Smith and his three habeas corpus and extradition hearings in the 1840s as the focal point," as reported on the LDS Church’s newsroom site.
LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks, former Utah Supreme Court justice and co-author of "The Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith," was on hand for the proceedings.
According to the LDS account, the apostle called the Smith extradition hearings a window "into the world of Joseph Smith" and the "legal world of Illinois in the 1840s."
Smith’s "intellectual understanding of the protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus," Oaks said, "justifies admiration by any student of the law."
In all three hearings, the report noted, "Illinois judges protected him by refusing to grant extradition."
Oaks said it was a difficult time for Mormonism, because the Bill of Rights and its provisions for freedom of speech and religion had not yet been extended to the states.
In an interview before the re-enactments, Oaks noted that Smith "preached observance of the law, respect for the Constitution and the obligation that each citizen owes to support the law and those who have been elected to administer it. It’s a remarkable history of obedience to law and respect for law by a leader who, along with his people, was sometimes victimized by that law."
Whatever one’s view of Smith as a religious leader, Oaks said, "most can agree that he was a remarkable man, a great American and one whom I and millions of our current countrymen honor as a prophet of God."
Smith was murdered in 1844 in Carthage, Ill.
The Smith re-enactment and panel discussion will be repeated in Chicago on Oct. 14 at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the report said, as well as included in the public school curriculum throughout Illinois.
Peggy Fletcher Stack
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