SAN ANTONIO – Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs has fired another top Texas attorney, shaking up his defense team less than three weeks before the scheduled start of his trial on charges that could land him in prison for life.
Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kearney filed a motion to withdraw Thursday, meaning he will be replaced by Houston-based Emily Munoz Detoto, who Jeffs quietly retained last week. Kearney said by phone that he remains the attorney of record, but only because the court closed for the day before it could act on his motion.
Running through lawyers in rapid-fire fashion appears to be a pretrial strategy for Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The 55-year-old faces charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child, which carries a maximum penalty of 99 years to life; sexual assault of a child, which carries a maximum 20 years in prison; and bigamy, also punishable by up to a life sentence.
The charges stem from an April 2008 raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch in the village of Eldorado, where authorities alleging that underage girls were being forced into polygamous marriages temporary removed more than 400 children living there.
The Yearning for Zion ranch raid left a dozen men in the church facing charges that included sexual assault and bigamy. Seven have been prosecuted since last year, and all were convicted. U.S. District Judge Barbara Walther has presided over each of the trials.
Prosecutors accused Jeffs of stalling after he was extradited to Texas from Utah in December and made a string of court appearances without an attorney. He finally hired well-known Austin lawyer Gerry Morris on Jan. 5, only to fire him hours later.
Kearney took the case later that month, and asked for more time to sort through thousands of pages of documents in evidence. Walther, the judge, delayed the start of Jeffs' trials on both sexual assault of a child charges until July 25 — but then refused defense requests for still more delays. He is set to be tried separately for bigamy in October.
In his motion to withdraw, Kearney said he received a call Wednesday from a representative of Jeffs, who informed him that his client "wished to immediately terminate" his services.
Detoto, Jeffs' new attorney, shrugged off notions that she too may soon be dismissed, given Jeffs' recent pattern.
"I'm not operating under a fear of being fired," she said Thursday evening. "I was hired to do a job and I am going to do it."
Jeffs' religious sect, which broke from the Mormon church more than a century ago, believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven. Jeffs is revered as a prophet. He was convicted in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl into marriage with an older cousin, but had that decision overturned in 2007.
Jeffs is now being held without bail in West Texas, and Detoto said she met with him last week in a prison common room.
His defense team had sought to remove Walther, the judge, and subpoenaed defense attorneys who represented other sect members in past criminal cases. They testified that the judge's body language during those proceedings could have unfairly influenced jurors.
That motion was denied by a judge filling in for Walther on June 14. But Detoto said she has asked for a new hearing, during which she will seek a re-hearing on whether Walther should be recused.