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Personal liberty from Joseph Smith to Guantanamo

Illinois legal experts discuss the courts' changing view over 2 centuries of the right to habeas corpus

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[March 26, 2013]  SPRINGFIELD -- Whether the year is 1843 or 2013, unpopular groups accused of crimes can be targeted for quick, rough justice. Only the legal system can ensure their rights are protected. How well the courts have done that is the subject of a special round-table discussion April 4 at the Illinois Capitol.

Two panels of legal experts will examine the issue in "Personal Liberty: A Discussion of Habeas Corpus from Joseph Smith to Guantanamo." The session runs from 2:30 to 4:30 in Room 212 of the Illinois Capitol, a hearing room that once housed the Illinois Supreme Court. The event is free and open to the public, but advance reservations are required. Visit

Sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission, the discussion will focus on two different incidents in two different periods:

  • Attempts in the 1840s to have Joseph Smith, leader of what was then the new and controversial Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, extradited from Illinois to Missouri on charges ranging from treason to conspiring to murder the Missouri governor.

  • The continuing incarceration at Guantanamo Bay of people suspected of connections to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

The issue of habeas corpus -- that is, having a judge determine whether someone is being held legally -- was a major point of contention in both cases.

"From our inception as a constitutional republic, the framers intended the courts and the great writ of habeas corpus to be the people's ultimate shield against the executive's unrestrained use of power to curtail liberty," said Judge Neil Cohen, co-chairman of the event.

Habeas corpus in the era of Joseph Smith will be examined by Richard Turley, assistant historian for the LDS church; Jeffrey Walker, editor of the Joseph Smith Papers; Leslie C. Griffin, professor of law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Lachlan Mackay, board member of the Joseph Smith Sr. Family Association; Reg Ankrom, an expert on Stephen Douglas; William Ray Price, former justice of the Missouri Supreme Court; and Baker & McKenzie attorney Thomas Campbell.

Guantanamo and modern habeas corpus will be the subject of a second panel, with Turley; Walker; Jeffrey Colman, partner at Jenner & Block; Thomas Sullivan, partner at Jenner & Block; U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough of the Central District of Illinois; David Owens from the University of Chicago Law School's Exoneration Project; and Andrea D. Lyon, law professor at DePaul University.

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"In the 19th century, a significant portion of the body politic viewed some Mormon beliefs as morally evil as slavery. Mormonism in the eyes of many was not a subject for bargaining," said the other co-chairman, J. Steven Beckett, director of trial advocacy at the University of Illinois College of Law. "It is precisely those who hold unpopular beliefs -- whether religious or political -- that require the utmost protection of the Constitution and the courts."

Both panels will be moderated by Gery Chico, a Chicago attorney who served as Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief of staff and is now chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.

The April 4 round-table discussion is the first in a yearlong series of events related to Joseph Smith's legal challenges. The events are produced and sponsored by the Lincoln Presidential Library and the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.

On Sept. 24, a mock trial in Springfield will use modern attorneys and judges to re-create the extradition proceedings against Smith. A similar trial is scheduled for Oct. 14 in Chicago.

In addition, a historical re-enactment of life in Nauvoo, the Illinois town founded by Smith and his followers, is scheduled for Sept. 23.

The mock trial of Joseph Smith follows similar events looking at Mary Surratt's role in Abraham Lincoln's assassination and Mary Lincoln's commitment to a sanitarium. Both of the earlier trials were used to develop lessons for Illinois schoolchildren.

"These trials are popular with our Illinois students," said Chico, the panel moderator. "In their classes they can imagine themselves before the bar as they learn from distinguished lawyers and historians."

Teachers attending the round-table discussion can receive continuing professional development credit. Organizers have also applied for minimum continuing legal education status.

For more information, visit

[Text from Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum file received from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency]

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