ST. GEORGE, Utah – Prospective jurors in the trial of a polygamous-sect leader have expressed some firm views about polygamy and arranged marriage — opinions that were strong enough to weed out the majority of people summoned to the courthouse.
After Tuesday's session, more than 200 people have been considered to hear the criminal case against Warren Jeffs. But the judge and attorneys so far have declared only 20 qualify for the final pool.
Jeffs, the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with two felony counts of rape by accomplice in the arranged religious union of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin in 2001.
Although a handful of people were dismissed because of medical, family or professional reasons, most were excused based on their responses to an 11-page questionnaire.
Defense attorneys argued months ago that intense media coverage of the case in Washington County had spoiled any possible jury, justifying a change of venue. Fifth District Judge James Shumate said he'd move the trial 300 miles north to Salt Lake City only if an impartial jury can't be found.
Shumate wants a final pool of at least 28 people to pick eight jurors and four alternates.
Fifteen people were told to report to his chambers Wednesday for interviews. The outcome will determine if another batch of 50 prospective jurors will be called, court spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said.
Because of the slow process, it was unclear whether opening statements in the trial would be heard Wednesday as first planned.
What's clear so far is that the defense team was right when it argued that residents here are familiar with the case.
Jeffs, 51, is accused of coercing the marriage of the 14-year-old, who is now an adult, over her objections. She has testified that Jeffs told her it was her religious duty to have sex to produce children.
Of those questioned, most say they know something about Jeffs, his church and loyal followers, although the depth of that knowledge varies.
One person knew that police found "wigs and computers and money" inside a car during his arrest near Las Vegas in August 2006. Several said they recalled Jeffs being named one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted fugitives.
Others said they hadn't followed the case beyond Jeff's capture. A homemaker from St. George said she generally skipped news stories because the "stories are always the same."
Many expressed a tolerance for the traditions of the FLDS church, which has roots in the early doctrine of the mainstream Mormon church, the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Polygamy is not an issue in the case, but "it's going to come up again and again," defense attorney Wally Bugden said.
The FLDS believes plural marriage, often called the "principle," will bring exaltation in heaven.
"To each his own," said one St. George woman, who works in accounting.
Defense attorneys asked people if they were bothered by the FLDS practice of arranged marriage.
"It's part of their religion, so we can't really judge them on that," one man said.
Several people said they had lived in countries where polygamy was part of the culture or had relatives whose marriages were arranged.
FLDS members live about 50 miles east of St. George in the border communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. They typically limit their contact with outsiders but still work and shop across Washington County.
Several prospective jurors said their spouses work in the construction industry, which employs many FLDS men. Others said their children had attended school with children from polygamous families or knew people who are former members.
Beyond that, most said they knew little about the FLDS way of life, although a LaVerkin man called the community's conservative dress "old school."
One woman said she would be a fair juror.
"I am willing to begin this trial believing that you are innocent," she said, looking at Jeffs squarely in the eyes.
He smiled, nodded and whispered, "thanks."
If convicted, Jeffs could spend the rest of his life in prison.