SALT LAKE CITY – The polygamous sect leader caught recently after he was on the run for a year was in a pair of accidents in the late 1990s that must be investigated to determine whether the head injuries he suffered caused brain damage, his lawyer said Wednesday.
A decision on whether Lyle Jeffs will argue that he is unfit to stand trial on food stamp fraud, money laundering and failing to appear in court won't be made until after experts assess the old medical reports and evaluate his mental health, the lawyer, Kathryn Nester, said in an email to The Associated Press.
She first revealed the accidents in a request Tuesday asking a federal judge for a four-month delay for Jeffs' Sept. 18 trial so she can obtain the records and determine whether he may have mental or physical problems stemming from the accidents that happened long before Jeffs ran into legal troubles centering on his leadership of the Mormon offshoot sect headquartered in a small community of Utah-Arizona border.
The first accident happened 1997 when Jeffs fell three stories at a construction site, hit his head on concrete and rocks and was left unconscious, Nester said in a court filing. Doctors said he suffered traumatic brain injuries and could experience a personality change, the documents said.
A year later, Jeffs was in a car accident in the Salt Lake City area that left him unconscious with cuts on his forehead and required treatment for traumatic brain injuries, Nester said documents.
Nester has requested full medical records on both accidents, plans to hire experts to assess Jeffs' mental health and said she will not decide whether to mount a defense saying he is unfit to stand trial until the experts conclude their evaluations.
Jeffs is jailed after he was captured in South Dakota on June 14 while apparently living out of his pickup truck. He had been a fugitive since June 18, 2016 after he slipped off an ankle monitor authorities put on him during home confinement in Salt Lake City while he awaited his trial.
He is a brother of Warren Jeffs, the sect's leader who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives. Known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, the group believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven — a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
Jeffs faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on a failure-to-appear charge. Counts of benefits fraud and money laundering carry possible 5- and 10-year sentences.
He was first arrested last year along with 10 other members of the group on accusations that they knowingly broke the law donating products purchased with food stamps to a communal storehouse while also diverting funds to front companies to pay for a tractor, truck and other items. Authorities have said sect leaders lived lavishly while low-ranking followers suffered.
Nine of the 10 defendants took plea deals and one had his case dismissed.
Federal prosecutors have said they will take a different approach with Lyle Jeffs, who they consider the lead defendant.
The revelation about the possible brain injuries will force the judge to be cautious in rulings about the case, said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has studied Jeffs' group.
"The court must be careful to avoid any appearance of injustice, especially given the high profile nature of this case," Guiora said. "Anything FLDS-related brings attention other trials don't bring."
It was unclear when U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart will rule on the trial delay request, but Jeffs is scheduled to appear in court Thursday.