The leader of a polygamous sect has gone on trial today in a case that is expected to reveal the inner workings of one of America’s most bizarre and secretive groups.
Warren Jeffs, a self-proclaimed prophet and president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an extreme offshoot of the Mormons, is accused of coercing the marriage and rape in 2001 of a 14-year-old followerer by her 19-year-old cousin.
Jeffs, 51, is charged with two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice for his role in the religious union.
Jury selection for the trial in Salt Lake City, Utah, began when 300 potential jurors in the Mormon state were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to reveal their views on polygamy and so their suitability to hear the case.
Jeffs was a fugitive for nearly two years and investigators believe he was sheltered by some of his group’s estimated 10,000 members, who live mainly in two isolated towns in Utah and Arizona.
The sect split from the official Mormon Church after the latter renounced polygamy and continues to believe plural marriage promises glorification in heaven.
The arranged marriages often involve underage girls and older men.
In order to head off any competition for wives, sect elders have been accused of forcing younger men to leave the group, cutting them off from further contact with their families.
Jeffs has led the FLDS church since 2002 and is regarded by followers as a prophet who holds dominion over their salvation.
Former church members say Jeffs, once a school principal, is a despot and demands complete obedience from followers.
Jurors will be asked to decide whether Jeffs knowingly encouraged the girl’s 19-year-old cousin to commit unlawful sex with her against her will, according to proposed jury instructions prosecutors have filed with the court.
Prosecutors claim Jeffs’ stature as church prophet left the 14-year-old girl powerless to do anything but submit sexually to her husband.
They say the girl twice told Jeffs she did not want to be married or have sex, but was instructed it was her “spiritual duty” because the union was sanctioned by God.
The defence will claim that Jeffs is being prosecuted for his faith and that his advice to the girl did not differ from counsel that religious leaders from other denominations might give.
Although the religious marriage between the girl and her cousin was monogamous, lawyers say that jurors’ attitudes towards plural marriage will be crucial.
“How could they not? You’re in a community down there that’s heavily Mormon, where lots of people have ancestors that were polygamists,” said Ken Driggs, a lawyer and author with ties to the sect.
“So they’re not going to see it as weird, but some are going to be embarrassed by it.”