Is Warren Jeffs a monster or a man of God? Is he one of the most dangerous men in the United States or a sideshow on the freakish fringe of America?
That’s some of what jurors in St. George, Utah, will have to sort out over the next two weeks as they try to determine whether the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl.
He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Jeffs is the “prophet” of the 15,000-member church that includes about 600 adherents in Bountiful, B.C.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is the largest polygamous group in North America, although it represents fewer than half the estimated number of fundamentalist Mormon polygamists in the state of Utah alone.
Fundamentalist Mormons broke away from the mainstream church in 1890, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints renounced the earthly practice of polygamy. The principle of plural marriage was set out by Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith as a direct order from God and it remains in the mainstream church’s holy book, The Doctrines and Covenants, as article 132.
Jeffs’s trial promises to be sensational. The 51-year-old “prophet” was a fugitive for 15 months. He was arrested last August after 114 days on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden.
In addition to the Utah charges, an Arizona grand jury has indicted Jeffs on charges of sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Aside from the prurient interest in a bizarre story of the forced marriage of a 14-year-old to her 19-year-old first cousin that took place within the closed, polygamous community in Mormon-dominated Utah, there is a serious question about religious freedom.
Jeffs counselled the newlyweds to multiply and replenish the Earth. If he’s found guilty, could any priest, minister, rabbi or imam be accused of counselling rape if he urges couples to go forth and multiply?
Polygamy is not at issue in this case. The religious marriage of the 14-year-old to her 19-year-old cousin was a first marriage for both of them.
What is at issue is Jeffs’s spiritual and temporal control. Jurors will hear testimony about how Jeffs determines who will marry because — supposedly — he is in direct contact with God, who reveals to him who is predestined to marry. So to reject an assigned marriage is to go against the will of God.
The court will hear how the prophet determines where people live because virtually all of the land in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., (as well as Bountiful) is owned by a church trust. And how he demands unquestioning obedience.
SECT LIKENED TO TALIBAN
Utah Attorney-General Mark Shurtleff has likened the FLDS to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Jeffs became prophet after his father’s death in 2002. Since then, Jeffs has excommunicated more than 100 men, stripping them of their wives and children who were later reassigned to men loyal to him. Even though he was a fugitive for 15 months, he has overseen construction of new communities in Eldorado, Tex., Pringle, S.D., and Mancos, Colo. He banned school, the colour red and even the word fun. Television, rock music, short sleeved shirts for men, trousers for women are all banned.
Utah’s star witness is now nearly 21 and the mother of two children; the second child was born less than two weeks after she testified at Jeffs’s preliminary hearing last November.
Called MJ by the court, she told Judge James Shumate how she had been shocked to learn that at 14 she had been assigned to marry her 19-year-old first cousin, who had bullied and taunted her. She begged her stepfather to intervene. She wanted time to grow up. Her stepfather refused, saying it was God’s will.
Under Utah law it is illegal for a 14-year-old to marry without parental consent and for first cousins to marry unless the parties are 65 and older or 55 and older and unable to reproduce.
Three times, MJ refused to say her vows. Finally, Jeffs insisted that her mother stand beside her. After a long, uncomfortable silence, MJ reluctantly said “I do.”
The marriage was consummated a month or so later. But that was only after the groom had exposed his penis to her in a public park and only after Jeffs had insisted that the husband, who has never been charged with rape, have sex with his child bride.
The state prosecutor is arguing that it was Jeffs’s insistence that the groom have sex with MJ that constitutes the charge of accomplice to the first rape in 2001 and to another rape two years later after MJ had had a miscarriage while visiting her sister in Bountiful.
The jury will hear from two of MJ’s sisters, who testified at the preliminary hearing about how distraught MJ was before and after the marriage and about the kind of mind control that Jeffs exercised even before his father died.
They will also testify that what they learned from Jeffs when he was principal at Alta Academy, where they all went to school, is that women were to give themselves to men “mind, body and soul.” Alta Academy’s curriculum is currently being used at Bountiful elementary-secondary school, which is accredited and funded by the B.C. government.
Judge Shumate ruled last month that two men, excommunicated by Jeffs, will be allowed to testify about Jeffs’s interventions into their sexual relations with their wives and about detailed instructions given at a priesthood meeting in 2002 urging them to continue with polygamy and marrying underage girls even if it meant breaking state and federal laws.
VICTIM OF PERSECUTION
Jeffs’s lawyers will argue Jeffs is a victim of religious persecution.
Walter Bugden says the case against his client is “nothing less than the state of Utah condemning a culturally different religion. It is a continuation of 165 years of intolerance for a people who engage in different cultural and religious practices. … Officiating at a wedding ceremony does not make Mr. Jeffs an accomplice to rape.”
One of their strategies is to discredit the witness, as Tara Isaacson attempted at the preliminary hearing. Unlike in Canada, MJ’s sexual history is not off limits.
The jury will hear MJ was pregnant with another man’s child before she was excommunicated. That man is now her husband.
Bugden and Isaacson may also tell jurors the Utah attorney general’s office paid some of MJ’s expenses after she agreed to testify and that she only reported the rapes to police after she had contacted two lawyers — Joanne Suder and Roger Hoole — who were already acting for complainants in two civil suits against Jeffs.
Jeffs’s lawyers tried to have the trial moved to Salt Lake City because they are concerned Jeffs can not get a fair trial in St. George, which is the closest city to the FLDS-controlled twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City.
Shumate denied the application, but is taking extraordinary measures to find impartial jurors.
On Friday, 300 people were handed a 75-item questionnaire aimed at screening out anyone with strong opinions about Jeffs. On Monday and Tuesday, those who made the cut, will have individual interviews with the judge in his chambers.
Shumate believes it will be possible to find eight jurors and three alternates even if only 25 people make it through the interviews given the number of preemptory challenges allowed the lawyers.
But if there aren’t 25, the trial will immediately be moved to Salt Lake City.