ROBERT LEE, Texas – A "sealing" ceremony performed by a polygamist ex-bishop between his leader, Warren Jeffs, and an underage girl differs from a marriage ceremony as defined by Texas law, the former bishop's attorney told a West Texas jury on Tuesday.
Fredrick Merril Jessop, 75, is charged with a felony count of performing an illegal 2006 wedding ceremony between Jeffs and an underage girl. The ceremony occurred at the Yearning For Zion Ranch near Eldorado, owned by the Jeffs-led Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The FLDS holds polygamy as a fundamental belief and its men take multiple wives in what are termed "celestial marriages" in a ceremony called "sealing."
Rae Leifeste of San Angelo told jurors in her opening statement Tuesday that "sealing" is not a marriage ceremony as defined by Texas law, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times (http://bit.ly/uhYbn9).
Before Leifeste spoke, prosecutor Angel Goodwin laid out the prosecution case.
"The state will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that on July 27, 2006, Fredrick Merril Jessop married a freckled, 12-year-old girl to a 50-year-old man," he said.
If convicted, Jessop could be sentenced to two to 10 years in prison and fined up to $10,000.
Jeffs' Utah-based church practices polygamy in arranged marriages that sometimes involve underage girls. The faith believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
Authorities raided the sect's Eldorado ranch in 2008 after a telephone call alleging the abuse of an underage bride by her husband was placed to a domestic violence hotline. More than 400 children were temporarily removed from the ranch and placed in state protective custody.
Although the call was later investigated as a hoax, prosecutors have used family and church records seized in the raid to bring charges against 12 sect members, all men, including Jessop and Jeffs.
In August, Jeffs was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two of his child brides. Prosecutors said Jeffs had a total of two dozen underage wives.
Prosecutors say one of Jessop's daughters was allegedly married to Jeffs at age 12. The girl was the only child from the West Texas ranch to remain in foster care after the courts ordered that the children removed during the raid must be returned to their parents.
Concerns over the difficulty of choosing an unbiased jury in sparsely populated Schleicher County, where the ranch is located, prompted the judge to move Jessop's trial about 70 miles north to Coke County.
Prosecutors called two Texas Rangers as their first witnesses. They provided a mostly technical account of how they handled evidence taken from the polygamists' West Texas ranch in an April 2008 raid.
On cross-examination, Leifeste has challenged the Rangers about how they learned that residents of the ranch were members of the polygamist group.
Goodwin said she expected to finish presenting the bulk of the prosecution case on Wednesday.
Jessop was a longtime FLDS bishop and senior church leader believed to be second in-line for the presidency after Jeffs. He was in charge of running the daily operations at the Yearning for Zion ranch until January, when he was reportedly ex-communicated from the faith.
One of Jessop's wives, Carolyn, fled the FLDS community on the Arizona-Utah line with her children in 2003 and wrote a best-selling book, "Escape."
Last year, a Texas judge ordered Jessop to pay his former wife $148,000 for seven years of back child support.