ST. GEORGE, Utah – A judge ruled Tuesday he would only move the trial of a polygamous-sect leader to Salt Lake City if he cannot seat a fair-minded jury. Judge James Shumate said the trial of Warren Jeffs will stay in southern Utah, but pledged to move it "immediately" if too many prospective jurors can't be impartial.
Jeffs, 51, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with rape as an accomplice in the spiritual marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a 19-year-old cousin in 2001.
His attorneys presented polling data to support their argument that people in Washington County can't be fair because they've been exposed to months of negative news reports about Jeffs.
Shumate said publicity may have impeded the court's ability to seat an impartial jury.
"What I do not know is whether or not it has been fatally impaired," the judge said. "And I cannot know until I attempt to impanel a jury."
Shumate also said jury selection in the trial would be conducted in private.
Jeffs' attorneys asked Shumate to suspend the trial so the ruling can be appealed to the state Supreme Court, but the judge rejected that request.
At the close of the hearing, Jeffs, frail and seemingly weak, stood and asked permission to approach Shumate to discuss something that he needed to "take care of."
Shumate, however, told Jeffs to talk with his attorneys.
Prosecutors contend they can prove two instances when Jeffs used his position of trust as a church prophet to prevail upon the girl to have sex with a 19-year-old cousin against her wishes.
In 2001, they were members of the FLDS, an insular sect of nearly 10,000 which practices polygamy in arranged marriages. The majority of church members live in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., about 45 miles east of St. George.
At one point, Jeffs had turned and smiled at 15 FLDS church members, who stood as a sign of respect when he entered the courtroom.
Defense attorneys said the early February poll showed that 52 percent of 210 Washington County respondents believe Jeffs is "definitely guilty."
In Salt Lake County, 39 percent of 206 respondents said Jeffs was "definitely guilty." The survey was conducted Feb. 5-14 and had an error margin of 6.9 percentage points.
Jeffs is being held in the county jail. He is also facing felony sex charges in Mohave County, Ariz., for his alleged role in two underage marriages and is under federal indictment for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
The trial set for April 23 was postponed last week. No new date has been set.