Death penalty mitigation and cult membership: The case of the Kirtland killings


  • Dr Sandra B. McPherson Ph.D.

    Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, Corresponding author
    1. 12434 Cedar Road, Suite 15, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, 44106, USA
    • 12434 Cedar Road, Suite 15, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, 44106, USA
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When cult activities precipitate violence against others, the interface of religious belief and practice, and law becomes complex. Personal and group psychological factors can assume importance not only to explain the crimes, but also in the processing of cases, particularly where a death penalty/mitigation trial is involved. While destructive cult membership has not been accepted in the legal system as a basis for an insanity plea, mitigation from the death penalty or other reduced responsibility outcomes can be justified and was effective in defence of Kirtland cult members. Outcomes in the Kirtland case reflected statutory requirements and procedural operations in complex constellations with roughly proportionate results. The paper details specifics of the case, defense strategies, prosecutorial functions, and religious and psychological underpinnings which led into acts for which neither religious freedom nor psychological disturbance could exempt from Penalty.