Judge will consider request Tuesday to move the trial out of Washington County
Polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs is as likely to get a fair hearing in Washington County as anywhere else in Utah, a county prosecutor maintains.
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap argues that court procedures allow for a trial to be moved only if another locale is “free from any taint of prejudice.”
“There is no county within Utah free from the objection that allegedly taints the citizens of Washington County,” Belnap states in documents filed Thursday in St. George.
Jeffs’ legal team – Salt Lake attorneys Wally Bugden and Tara Isaacson and Richard Wright of Las Vegas – want his trial moved from St. George to Salt Lake County, where they believe fewer potential jurors are biased against him.
On Tuesday, 5th District Judge James L. Shumate will consider that request and other defense motions.
Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with two felony counts of being an accomplice to rape for allegedly conducting an arranged marriage in 2001 between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
Jeffs’ trial was to start April 23, but Shumate has postponed it. On that day he will consider a fourth defense motion seeking to suppress evidence found with Jeffs when he was arrested last August.
A four-prong test for moving a trial asks judges to consider whether: the victim and defendant have comparable standing in the community; the county is large and diverse enough to ensure jurors have not been “touched in some way” by the crime; the crime is so heinous it is “embedded” in minds of potential jurors; and an impartial jury can be found despite widespread publicity.
Jeffs’ attorneys have submitted a survey that shows significantly more people in Washington County than Salt Lake County consider him “definitely guilty” and that many came to that conclusion based on media reports.
Belnap acknowledges the publicity given Jeffs is “unusual.” But that publicity, in the form of cable news, Internet, radio and newspaper coverage, has extended throughout the state, he adds.
A Utah Supreme Court ruling found a potential juror is not necessarily disqualified just because he or she has an opinion about a defendant’s guilt, he notes. The court also rejected an attempt in another case to use an opinion survey to argue for a change of venue.
Washington County is a large and diverse community, and “this case did not touch the lives of numerous volunteers or organizations; indeed, the alleged crime’s occurrence was isolated and did not come to light for several years,” Belnap maintains.
Belnap also responded to defense attacks on the constitutionality of a section of Utah’s rape statute, saying Jeffs’ conduct “falls squarely within the common-sense definition of ‘entice.’ ”
Jeffs told the teen to give herself in “mind, body and soul” to her husband, Belnap argued, adding, “There is no First Amendment right to persuade a child to have non-consensual sex with an adult.”
Belnap argued there was sufficient evidence to support the judge’s decision to send the case to trial.
“The victim’s words and conduct clearly expressed that she did not even want to touch her purported husband – let alone engage in intimate sexual contact,” Belnap’s response states.