SALT LAKE CITY — The charge against polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs _ rape by accomplice _ is based on the same legal principle that makes getaway drivers culpable for bank robbery, legal experts say.
Jeffs, awaiting trial in a southern Utah jail, is accused of forcing an underage girl to marry an older man over her objections. A charging affidavit says Jeffs told the girl her religious salvation depended on submitting to the man, who has not been charged.
Accomplice charges have long been part of common law, and Jeffs’ lawyers won’t be able to rely on a defense that tries to attack that concept, said Erik Luna, law professor at the University of Utah.
“You are as liable as if you committed the act yourself,” said Craig Barlow, a state attorney who sent another Utah man to prison in 1997 for forcing his 13-year-old daughter to marry a 48-year-old man.
John Perry Chaney’s conviction for rape by accomplice was upheld by the Utah Court of Appeals, which rejected his claim he expected his daughter to wait until turning 16 to consummate the marriage. She disputed that and testified her father provided her with “marriage bed” instructions.
Chaney, an itinerant preacher, was convicted by a jury even though he was far from the crime scene, traveling with a band of followers.
A leading Utah pollster says jurors can be tough _ especially jurors in Mormon-dominated Utah who are judging self-styled fundamentalists who renounce the mainstream church for giving up polygamy more than a century ago.
That was Tom Green’s complaint. Green, 56, one of Utah’s best known polygamists, was convicted in 2001 of bigamy for having five wives and child rape for having sex with his first wife, Linda Kunz, when she was 13 years old in 1986.
Green, who is scheduled for parole next year, refused a request for a jailhouse interview.
From governors on down, almost every lifelong Utah resident has some family roots in polygamy, but historic polygamy is seen as less nefarious than the modern version, said pollster Dan Jones.
Historic polygamy in Utah often is recounted as involving a man taking on widows or single women who were joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while modern polygamy, as often as not, involves older men taking brides as young as 13.
That makes today’s Mormons cringe, Jones said.
“It has become very clandestine, and the negative aspect of young women is much more salient now,” he said.
Jones said polls have consistently shown Utah residents are opposed to polygamy, even though leaders and members of the church practiced it in early times. Church leaders renounced the practice in 1890 as a condition of statehood.
Jeff’s defense lawyers, Walter F. Bugden Jr. and Tara L. Isaacson, may try to raise a religious freedom defense, but a judge could refuse to allow any testimony on it, Luna said. The lawyers didn’t return repeated calls from The Associated Press.
Jeffs is charged with two counts of rape by accomplice in Utah. Each count carries a penalty of five years to life in prison.
“We believe there is evidence to support at least two separate incidences in which the defendant is criminally liable,” Brian Filter, a Washington County prosecutor, told The Associated Press by e-mail.
The older man involved in the case has not been identified or charged. Filter, without confirming why, offered that “perhaps he is a cooperating witness.
“There are other possibilities as well; nothing is specifically on or off the table at this point regarding charging other persons or presenting further witnesses or evidence,” Filter said.
He said charging the man would serve only to identify the girl, and court papers omit any mention of her name as well. She is expected to testify at trial.
The day after Jeffs was arrested Aug. 28 in Nevada after more than a year on the run, a sexual assault trial in Kingman, Ariz., of another member of the sect was put on hold when the alleged victim refused to testify.
Jeffs also faces two felony charges in Mohave County, Ariz., for another arranged marriage involving an underaged girl. He’s expected to be prosecuted there after Utah proceedings have concluded.
Jeffs, 50, has been the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for four years. The polygamy-practicing sect of nearly 10,000 people mostly make their homes in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Lawyers say testimony about Jeffs’ lifestyle, including his own harem of wives and his power and control over followers, could make him as unsympathetic as Chaney was to his jury. Jeffs might be better off waiving his right to a jury trial and making his case to a judge, they say.
Chaney is in his ninth year of a five years-to-life sentence because he has refused sex-offender treatment, Utah Corrections spokesman Jack Ford said.
“Mr. Chaney has not been an easy inmate to manage. He was wrapping himself in towels and refusing to acknowledge the state could put a number on him. He wouldn’t even eat our food. He wanted his wife to bring it in every day,” Ford said.
Chaney is being held in solitary confinement. His next hearing before Utah’s parole board, which could release him, isn’t scheduled until June 2008.