HURRICANE, Utah – A polygamist sect leader whose followers revere him as a prophet is expected to make his first appearance in a Utah courtroom Wednesday to set a timetable for his criminal case.
The setting is conservative, fast-growing Washington County, where Warren Jeffs‘ church and some of its members have had previous clashes with the law.
Can Jeffs, accused of arranging marriages involving minors, get a fair-minded jury if the case goes to trial in the weeks ahead?
“There’s a real skepticism brought to bear on their claims,” said Rod Parker, who has defended members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that practices polygamy in marriages determined by its leaders.
“It’s very subtle, but it’s there,” Parker said.
Jeffs, 50, is facing two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice. Affidavits filed in the case say he forced a girl under age 18 to marry an older man and submit “mind, body and soul to your husband.”
He was on the run for nearly two years before being arrested in August during a traffic stop in Las Vegas.
The purpose of the hearing Wednesday is to set a schedule, including dates for a preliminary hearing and possible trial. Judge James Shumate also might discuss revoking Jeffs’ bail while the case moves through court.
Jeffs remains in the county jail. After his transfer from Las Vegas, he appeared by video link to hear the charges Sept. 6.
Finding a jury that holds an impartial – or even mild – view of polygamy could be tough in Washington County, about two hours east of Las Vegas.
For nearly 100 years, members of the sect, which number nearly 10,000, have lived a quiet, insular life in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Women dress in long, prairie-style dresses, and men are required to wear long pants and long sleeves.
They drive minivans and dial cell phones, shop at Wal-Mart and eat at restaurants, but typically don’t interact with surrounding communities.
Parker believes FLDS members are perceived differently than other clients he’s defended.
He represented Rodney Holm, a Hildale police officer convicted of bigamy in 2003, and last year tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Utah Supreme Court to keep a polygamist judge on the bench.
In the Holm case, questionnaires that asked about polygamy revealed a strong bias among prospective jurors, Parker said.
“I thought going into it, that being in southern Utah where people had a little more interaction with the fundamentalists, that it would be better,” he said. “We were surprised.”
In 2001, in a different county, John Bucher defended Tom Green on charges of bigamy and child rape. He was convicted and sent to prison.
“I don’t think you can say, ‘The perpetrator is a member of a polygamist organization,’ and try to separate that out from the crime in the jurors’ mind,” Bucher said.
Whether prosecutors state it or not, he said, polygamy will be an underlying factor for the behavior on trial.
He said it was a mistake to ask that Green’s case be moved to Utah County, 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, from Nephi in Juab County, where it “was sort of live and let live.”
“Utah County was wasn’t good at all. It was very prejudiced against him,” Bucher said.
He believes the anti-polygamy sentiment is rooted in the Mormon culture that dominates much of Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
“For a number of years (Green) was speaking his mind about polygamy and saying what a good family he had and what a good guy he was, and the fact that his religion was based on an original interpretation of the Mormon church,” Bucher said.
The community “was mad,” he said. “It wasn’t their religion any more and they didn’t want to be reminded of it.”
But a juror in the Green case disputes Bucher’s view.
“Is the action that he’s accused of, or that he’s admitted to, legal or not legal?” Jeff Forsyth said. “Until we concluded and came back with a verdict, we never talked to each other about religion.”
He believes Jeffs can get a fair trial if prosecutors and defense attorneys find 12 jurors in predominantly Mormon Washington County to stay focused on the legal issues.