SAN ANGELO, Texas – Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs gave a delayed opening statement about religious persecution Wednesday at his trial, where he is defending himself on charges of sexually abusing underage girls.
His surprise 30-minute statement followed prosecutors resting their case against him, after they played an audiotape of what they said was him assaulting a 12-year-old he had taken as a "spiritual wife."
Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, evoked images of the civil rights movement and mentioned former Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr. in his statement He also asked the jury to remember constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
His sect believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church's 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.
After his statement, which attorneys have the option to make when they begin presenting their cases, he called one of his church's members to testify. JD Roundy read from the Book of Mormon.
Jeffs is accused of sexually assaulting two girls, the 12-year-old and a 15-year-old. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 119 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors called 22 witnesses over five days, but neither of the alleged victims participated in the case.
On Tuesday, prosecutors played two tapes of Jeffs instructing the older girl, as well as several women, on how to please him sexually -- and thus please God. Forensic experts have testified that DNA shows Jeffs fathered a child with the 15-year-old in October 2005.
The recordings were seized by police following an April 2008 raid on Yearning For Zion, a church compound in remote Eldorado, Texas. More than 400 children were placed into protective custody amid allegations that girls were being forced into polygamist marriages.
The anonymous call for help that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax, and the children were returned to their families, but images of FLDS women wearing frontier-style dresses and hairdos out of the 19th century had made headlines nationwide.
Nick Hanna, a Texas Ranger involved in the 2008 raid, said Wednesday's recording was made on Aug. 7, 2006, at the compound and held on a thumb drive recovered when Jeffs was arrested after a traffic stop along a Nevada highway in August 2006. An electronic copy was also found at Yearning For Zion.
Played in court, it was difficult to decipher, but Jeffs' and a female voice are heard. He says, "I perform this service in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen," then mentions the alleged victim by name. When she says something, he responds, "don't talk while praying." Several minutes of heavy breathing followed.
The jury wore headphones to better hear the recording and also followed a transcript. One female juror covered her face with her hand as she listened.
Jeffs fired his lawyers last week and has been representing himself. Speaking in deliberate tones and relying on antiquated terminology, the tall and lanky defendant has objected to the proceedings repeatedly, arguing that his right to religious freedom was violated.
District Judge Barbara Walther has overruled him every time.
Jeffs objected before the latest recording was played, saying, "the continued insinuation of being a court and jury, and seeking to assume a certain point of conduct is followed without understanding. There cannot be insinuation of anything."
When Walther overruled him, Jeffs voiced one more half-hearted protest but was cut off. He remained seated and silent as the tape played for more than 10 minutes.
Authorities also seized Jeffs' personal journals from Yearning For Zion. In documenting what took place the night the recording was made, Jeffs wrote that the girl "experienced a heavenly session with us and obtained a greater testimony." He said he was directing another of his wives to take the recording of his "training" with the girl to a variety of FLDS settlements so others could learn from it -- helping to explain why it was in the Escalade when he was arrested.
In another written excerpt, Jeffs says "though 12 years old, she has advanced quickly and got close. And she is being prepared to be a strength in the heavenly sessions." Hanna testified previously that "getting close" is how Jeffs refers to having sex.
A birth certificate recovered from the ranch indicated the girl from the recording had turned 12 just 33 days before it was made. Prosecutors showed an FLDS record indicating she was married to Jeffs in July 2006 and jurors saw photos of the couple deep kissing.
Jeffs tried unsuccessfully three times to have the judge removed from the case, his last motion quoting God as saying she will suffer a crippling sickness that will soon kill her. Without the jury present Friday, Jeffs read a statement he claimed was from God promising that the heavens would bring sickness and death to all involved if his trial wasn't stopped.