Those who are interested in legal issues relating to the Book of Mormon will be interested in a superb book published by by John Welch on the legal cases in the Book of Mormon. In a recent essay in this book, Welch argues that the case of Nehor may have posed an interesting legal problem for Alma the Chief Judge in the first year of the reign of the judges. (“The Trial of Nehor,” The Legal Cases of the Book of Mormon. Brigham Young University Press and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008, 211-35).
We are told that following the death of Gideon, the killer Nehor, was apprehended by the people and taken to Alma, where he was able “to plead for himself with much boldness” (Alma 1:11). How could Nehor have defended his actions?
Welch offers several possible lines of defense for Nehor in light of the law of Moses which was observed by the Nephites. Nehor may have argued, for example, that his killing of Gideon was not intentional. Intentional homicide was punishable by death (Numbers 35:17; "the murderer who deliberately killeth" 2 Nephi 9:35). For example, if the victim was smitten “with an instrument of iron” or by one “throwing a stone” causing death, the perpetrator was considered guilty of murder if he had been “laying in wait” to kill the victim (Numbers 35:16-21), which would show premeditation. Unpremeditated killings, however, did not require capital punishment, although the perpetrators unable to escape to a city of refuge might be slain by relative of the victim (Numbers 35:15, 19). “Biblical law seems to have recognized the element of fighting as a mitigating factor in settling the liabilities of men who had been parties to a brawl” and “Presumably, some leniency was normally shown in cases where people acted improperly but under the heat of an altercation, or if injury was caused inadvertently as a consequence of a scuffle” (225).
Welch observes that in the case of Nehor, both men had apparently fought before Gideon was killed in the confrontation (Alma 1:9). According to Welch, Nehor may have argued that Gideon’s death was unpremeditated and that Nehor was not laying in wait for Gideon and that he did not start our with the intent of killing the man.
Priestcraft was considered an evil (2 Nephi 26:29-30), but not illegal itself under the law of Mosiah. There apparently was no legal punishment specified for priestcraft if people professed to believe what they taught (Alma 1:17). For this and other reasons discussed by Welch, the case of Nehor posed a particular legal problem under the law of Moses as practiced by the Nephites. He also discusses several other additional factors that may have been relevant to Nehor's defense.
“In the final analysis, Nehor was executed not for murder, and not for priestcraft, but for a composite offense of endeavoring to enforce priestcraft by the sword (Alma 1:12). Alma’s judicial brilliance is evident in the way he fashioned this ruling. As suggested above, a simple charge of murder was problematic (if not precluded) under Numbers 35, and as far as we know, no human punishment was prescribed for priestcraft alone in any specific text. By innovatively combining these two offenses, however, Alma was able to convict Nehor of killing for the culpable purpose of enforcing priestcraft. . . . I would see Mosiah’s law against murder as supplying the element of the actus reus necessary for Nehor’s conviction, while the moral and religious turpitude of priestcraft can be seen as providing the required mens rea sufficient to support a verdict requiring capital punishment.” (227)
Welch also observes that in the aftermath of Nehor’s execution his followers instigated persecutions “with all manner of words” and that some members of the Church “began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists” (Alma 1:22). “Significantly,,” notes Welch, “they hit each other only with their fists because the case of Nehor had made it clear that it was illegal to enforce one’s religious beliefs with a weapon, but the holding said nothing about other kinds of striking” as long as they were not intended to kill (234).
Welch’s book provides a wealth of insight into the many ancient legal aspects of the Book of Mormon and the reader will be amply rewarded.