Sentencing Date Set for Polygamous-Sect Leader Warren Jeffs
ST. GEORGE, Utah – Jurors rejected a defense attorney's argument that the prosecution of a polygamous sect leader was religious persecution, convicting him as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old follower to marry her 19-year-old cousin.
The victim in the case didn't accept it either, telling reporters the case was about child abuse.
"This trial has not been about religion or a vendetta. It was simply about child abuse and preventing abuse," the woman, now 21, said in prepared remarks after the verdict.
Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, could get life in prison after a trial that threw a spotlight on an insular community along the Arizona-Utah line where followers practice polygamy and revere him as a prophet with dominion over their salvation.
Jeffs stood with a stoic look on his face as the verdict was read.
Prosecutors said Jeffs, who performed the ceremony, forced the girl into marriage and sex despite her objections. Jurors said they agreed that Jeffs rejected the girl's pleas and later refused to release her from the marriage when she complained about relations with her husband.
"He was pretty much her only ticket out of the relationship," said juror Jerry Munk, 36.
Defense attorney Wally Bugden, who had told jurors that Jeffs was a victim of religious persecution, declined to comment.
"Religion was definitely involved, but I don't think it was about that," said juror Heather Newkirk, 32.
The jury deliberated for about 16 hours over three days. On Tuesday morning, the judge replaced a juror with an alternate for undisclosed reasons.
Jeffs' attorneys haven't said if they plan to appeal. His sentencing is set for Nov. 20, and he faces five years to life in prison for each of the two counts of rape by accomplice.
At the trial, widely different versions of the relationship — and Jeffs' influence — were presented by the woman and her former husband, Allen Steed, 26.
At their wedding in 2001 at a Nevada motel, the woman said, she cried in despair when pressed by Jeffs to say "I do" and had to be coaxed to kiss her new husband. The woman testified that FLDS girls receive no information about their bodies or reproduction. She said she didn't even know sex was the means by which women conceived.
The woman said the couple were married for at least a month before they had intercourse, and that her husband told her it was "time for you to be a wife and do your duty."
"My entire body was shaking. I was so scared," she testified. "He just laid me on the bed and had sex."
Afterward, she slipped into the bathroom, where she downed two bottles of over-the-counter pain reliever and curled up on the floor, she said. "The only thing I wanted to do was die," she said.
The Associated Press generally does not name those who allege sexual abuse.
Steed testified that his teenage bride initiated their first sexual encounter, approaching him after he fell asleep in his clothes after a 12-hour day at work.
Under Utah law, a 14-year-old can consent to sex in some circumstances. But sex is not considered consensual if a person under 18 is enticed by someone at least three years older.
For reasons prosecutors have never explained, Steed has not been charged with a crime.
The couple was finally granted an FLDS divorce, or a release, as it is called, in 2004 when the teen bride became pregnant with another man's child. She has since left the faith.
Members of the FLDS practice polygamy in marriages arranged by the church prophet. Polygamy was not on trial here — the couple was monogamous — but the case focused attention on its continued practice.
Brought to Utah by members of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, polygamy was abandoned by mainstream Mormons as condition of statehood in 1890. The Mormon church now excommunicates members who engage in the practice. It disavows any connection with the estimated 30,000 self-described Mormon fundamentalist who continue to believe plural marriage brings exaltation in heaven.
Jeffs succeeded his father in 2002 as president of the FLDS, who since the 1920s have lived in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz.
In Arizona, Jeffs is charged with eight felonies for being an accomplice to incest and sexual misconduct with minors in connection with marriages involving two underage girls.
In addition, Jeffs is under federal indictment in Utah on charges of fleeing to avoid prosecution. He was arrested last year during a traffic stop near Las Vegas after about 18 months on the run.