RELIGION

Canadian polygamous leader found guilty of having 25 wives

After a decades-long legal fight, two former leaders of an isolated polygamous community in Canada were convicted of practicing polygamy.

Monday’s conviction sets up another potential court battle over the constitutionality of Canada's polygamy laws.

Winston Blackmore, 60, was found guilty by British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Sheri Ann Donegan, who said the evidence was clear that Blackmore was married to 25 women at the same time.

Blackmore has never denied having multiple wives. He said polygamy is part of his religious beliefs that call for "celestial" marriages.

"I'm guilty of living my religion and that's all I'm saying today because I've never denied that," Blackmore told reporters after the verdict. "Twenty-seven years and tens of millions of dollars later, all we've proved is something we've never denied. I've never denied my faith. This is what we expected."

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In addition to Blackmore, James Oler, 53, was found guilty of being married to five women.

Blackmore and Oler are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect that believes in plural marriage. The group's main base is in a small community on the Utah-Arizona border in the United States.

Oler was chosen to lead the Canadian community just north of Idaho following Blackmore's excommunication from the sect in 2002 by Warren Jeffs, considered the prophet and leader of the group who is now in a Texas prison, serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

The mainstream Mormon Church renounced polygamy in the late 19th century and disputes any connection to the fundamentalist group's form of Mormonism.

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The investigation and attempted prosecution of Blackmore and Oler began in the 1990s and dragged on for years due to uncertainty about Canada's polygamy laws.

After a constitutional reference question was sent to the British Columbia Supreme Court, the court ruled in 2011 that laws banning polygamy were valid and did not violate religious freedoms guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Blackmore’s lawyer, Blair Suffredine, has already said he would challenge the constitutionality of Canada's polygamy laws if his client was found guilty.

Under Canadian law, the maximum penalty they will each face is five year in prison. The two will be sentenced at future hearings.

The Associate Press contributed to this report.