ST. GEORGE, Utah – The woman who says she was coerced into marital sex with her first cousin by a polygamous-sect leader testified Thursday that she was indoctrinated from childhood in absolute obedience to church leaders.
The testimony came in the trial of Warren Jeffs, prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who is charged with rape as an accomplice for his role in the consummated marriage of a 14-year-old to her adult relative in 2001.
In Utah’s 5th District Court, the woman, now 21, described how Jeffs had been her schoolteacher and religious leader, instilling the FLDS belief in “celestial marriages” as a key to salvation.
The Arizona Republic is identifying her only as Jane Doe because of the rape allegation.
Under questioning from Washington County prosecutor Craig Barlow, Doe said, “The prophet was God to us. He was God on Earth,” and church members were to obey his word “as though we were led by a hair.”
She said Jeffs taught that women must submit to their husbands and view them as patriarchs and priestly heads. “I was to obey him without question, as I would the prophet.”
The witness said she could not refuse sex or disobey in any other way or she would lose her family on Earth and be denied heaven in the afterlife.
Jeffs remained stone-faced in a dark suit, as he had through pretrial hearings.
Twelve jurors, including four alternates, were seated before testimony. Seven are men and five are women.
Judge James Shumate halted Thursday’s session before Doe was finished and before Jeffs’ attorneys could cross-examine the state’s key witness.
However, in opening statements, defense lawyer Tara Isaacson emphasized to jurors that the case is not about polygamy or the beliefs of FLDS church members. Rather, she said, the question is whether Jane Doe was raped at all, and whether Warren Jeffs was responsible for that victimization, if it occurred.
Although Jeffs and others urged the girl to marry, Isaacson said, “The evidence will not show that he ever counseled her to submit to rape.”
She said the husband, who was 19 at the time and has not been charged, will testify that Jane Doe was never forced to have sex and on some occasions invited it. She predicted that even Jane Doe will acknowledge “there was a point in their marriage where she sugared up,” being sweet to the husband.
Isaacson warned jurors that the prosecution would attempt to “engender hatred of Jeffs,” adding, “The religion is not on trial . . . but we have to give you context to understand how the whole story unfolds.”
She asked jurors to consider the motives of witnesses, pointing out that Jane Doe has sued Jeffs and the FLDS church. “She’s going to tell you a story, and she might cry,” the defense lawyer said, advising jurors to be swayed by facts rather than tears.
About a dozen members of the sect attended Thursday’s court session but made no comments. Trial security remained high-profile, with seven sheriff’s deputies in the courtroom, one of them seated between prosecution and defense tables facing the audience.
The opening statements were preceded by wrangling over key legal issues, such as what constitutes “rape as an accomplice” and how jurors must define “consent.” Defense attorneys unsuccessfully sought an instruction to jurors that Jeffs could not be guilty if Jane Doe’s husband was unaware that the marital sex was non-consensual.
Attorneys also debated a sealed tape recording made by Jeffs last year, with the defense arguing that divulging the contents would violate religious freedom because the declarations were sacred. Shumate ordered that the tape remain sealed.
Prosecutor Brock Belnap’s opening statement laid out a foundation for the charge that Jeffs used his position with the FLDS to pressure Doe into the marriage.
He stressed Jeffs’ authoritarian role and church dogma that says a woman must obey her spouse.
Belnap displayed a picture on a screen of the girl in her wedding dress, looking even younger than 14, then described how she resisted consummating the marriage.
She begged Jeffs not to force her into having sex, Belnap said.
“She will testify that Mr. Jeffs told her to repent and go back and give herself in mind, body and soul,” the prosecutor said. “And she did.”
As the girl submitted for the first time, Belnap added, “She cried and said, ‘Please, don’t. I don’t understand what you’re doing.’ ”
Isaacson said testimony will prove that Jeffs instructed women that they need not obey an unrighteous spouse and that his teachings include this declaration: “A man should only have marital relations with his wife if she invites it. . . . There is no force in the marriage of celestial marriage.”
The trial, with nearly 100 names on the list of prospective witnesses, is expected to continue into next week, with Jane Doe resuming testimony this morning.
Her family members are split on the list, with her mother and some siblings testifying for the defense and her father and other siblings testifying for the prosecution.