PROVO, Utah – Utah's first polygamy trial in nearly 50 years opened on Tuesday with a prosecutor outlining the tangled marital history of a man with five wives and at least 29 children.
Tom Green, 52, faces charges of bigamy and failing to pay child support. He could get up to 25 years in prison and $25,000 in fines.
Green has said that he follows Mormon beliefs as they existed more than a century ago, before the church renounced polygamy, and that his constitutional right to freedom of religion allows him to take many wives. He has vigorously defended his lifestyle on TV talk shows.
Prosecutor David Leavitt walked jurors through a maze of names and marriage dates and painted a stark picture of the Green family home in the Utah desert, describing it as a cluster of ramshackle trailers amid dirt roads and sagebrush.
Leavitt, the younger brother of Gov. Mike Leavitt, told the jury of five women and three men that there is nothing noble in Green's motives.
Borrowing a line from Groucho Marx that drew grins from the audience, Leavitt said: "One of the things the evidence will demonstrate is that Tom Green feels like it's pretty big of him to have so many wives and so many children. It will also demonstrate that it's bigamy."
Green is also charged separately with child rape stemming from his marriage to one of his wives when she was 13. That trial has not yet been scheduled, and the matter cannot be mentioned during the bigamy trial.
So Leavitt carefully avoided mentioning the ages of the young women Green married -- most of them around 14 and 15.
Prosecutors also showed the jury clips from more than a half-dozen TV appearances the family made, including "Dateline," "48 Hours," "Judge Judy," "The Jerry Springer Show" and shows from French and Japanese television.
Leavitt has said that without the media attention, he would never have even known about Green.
In the videos, the family talked about their children, their daily rituals -- including laundry for two dozen children -- and their sex lives, which drew clucks of disapproval and snickers from the courtroom audience.
Green's attorney, John Bucher, said the tapes were edited to focus on "the most prurient" sections.
"He may be what you think of as ... a bad man, but that is irrelevant to the case," he said.
Although polygamy was banned when Utah became a state in 1896, there has not been a major prosecution since federal agents raided the polygamous town of Short Creek on the Utah-Arizona line, in 1953.
Today, there are an estimated 30,000 polygamists living around the West, many of them living in the wilderness like the Greens to escape the attention of the law.
Mormon pioneers brought polygamy to Utah in the 1840s, but 50 years later the church renounced the practice to win statehood for the territory. Utah's Constitution specifically outlaws plural marriage.
The practice has persisted, particularly among those who say they are following the Mormon Church's original scriptures. Polygamists are excommunicated from the church.