Prophet faces rape charge for marrying girl, 14, to her cousin
ST. GEORGE, Utah – As polygamous church leader Warren Jeffs goes on trial this week on charges of being an accomplice to rape, more is at stake than a guilty or innocent verdict.
The prophet’s day in court could be a seminal event in law-enforcement efforts to deal with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and in the sect’s battle for religious freedom.
The trial comes after years of criminal investigation and civil lawsuits. Jeffs became one of the nation’s most-wanted fugitives and was captured and jailed last year, which set off months of legal maneuvering.
For an estimated 8,000 FLDS members, the courtroom drama represents a culmination of efforts by authorities in Arizona and Utah to combat sexual abuse, fraud and familial interference in the isolated twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
“The trial’s spectacular,” said Terry Goddard, Arizona attorney general. “It’s going to galvanize media attention. It’s certainly very important to show that no person is above the law. . . . But it’s a mistake to say the rise and fall of Warren Jeffs is the single-most-important event.”
Authorities’ goals are not to destroy the FLDS church or even primarily to crack down on polygamy. The purpose is to stop any abuse and exploitation of underage girls and to eliminate the sect’s control of communities that violates people’s rights.
The FLDS church, which is not affiliated with the Mormon Church, teaches that plural marriages are instrumental to salvation. Jeffs, 51, faces two felony counts of rape as an accomplice. Those charges do not stem from the controversial FLDS practice of plural marriage but from the leader’s role in marrying a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin six years ago.
Jury selection began last week.
Based on hearings and motions to date, the trial has the makings of a legal dogfight.
Defense attorneys claim Jeffs’ religious freedom is under fire and likely will play that card to jurors in opening statements this week. Walter Bugden Jr., the lead counsel, has complained that his client is being unfairly pilloried as “evil” and as a “bad man.”
He is expected to ask jurors why a religious leader is being prosecuted for the rape of a teenage bride if there are no charges against the bridegroom. He also likely will assail the notion of “rape as an accomplice” when the accused was never in the reported victim’s bedroom.
“It’s certainly not a slam dunk,” said Goddard, noting that Arizona authorities will watch the trial closely because charges against Jeffs in Mohave County mimic those in Utah.
On the other side, Washington County prosecutors plan to introduce witnesses and documents to show that Jeffs’ power and influence caused the 14-year-old to consummate her spiritual marriage.
Shumate, of Washington County’s 5th District Court, has resolved a gamut of sticky legal disputes without establishing a clear winner.
Siding with the defense team, Shumate ruled that the young girl, now 20, must be referred to by her last name, rather than as the “victim.” He also banned jailhouse declarations made by Jeffs as prejudicial. The comments, which are sealed, reportedly included an abdication of his role as a prophet.
Shumate denied the defense’s motion for a venue change, one of several rulings upheld by Utah’s Supreme Court. The judge also decided that prosecutors can use letters and other evidence seized by Nevada Highway Patrol officers when Jeffs was captured in August 2006. He also agreed that two exiled FLDS members can testify about Jeffs’ control over marital relations within the church.
Amid the legal battles, Jeffs’ courtroom conduct raised competency concerns. The tall, gaunt defendant appeared especially wan during hearings this spring, nodding off and drooling on his coat at one point. When reporters asked Bugden about Jeffs’ condition, the attorney answered, “He is very frail.”
A few weeks later, a psychological exam concluded that Jeffs was afflicted with depression and anxiety. He purportedly went days without food or water and spent so many hours in prayer that he developed ulcers on his knees. Despite those findings, Shumate ruled Jeffs competent for trial.
The most compelling question this week may be whether Jeffs will testify on his own behalf.
But the most riveting witness is likely to be the 20-year-old woman known as Jane Doe, who gave a detailed accounting under oath during a preliminary hearing last November.
At the time, she described how Jeffs reportedly coerced her to marry her cousin, claiming her salvation was at stake. Those statements led the judge to find probable cause to proceed with the trial.