ST. GEORGE, Utah, Sept. 14, 2007 — The key witness in the trial of polygamist Warren Jeffs testified Thursday that she was taught Jeffs was the prophet and the only way to eternal salvation was a complete surrender to his teachings.
“The prophet was God to us. He was God on Earth and his counselors were pretty much the same, so they had jurisdiction over us,” the woman said, explaining why she agreed to Jeffs’ order to marry her 19-year-old cousin when she was 14 years old.
Jeffs — the leader of the 10,000-strong Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, locally known as FLDS — is charged with two counts of rape by accomplice. Prosecutors say he forced the woman, now 21, into having sex with her husband when she was a teenager.
She testified only briefly Thursday and is expected to return to the stand today.
In opening statements to jurors Thursday, prosecutors said the woman, identified in court only as “Jane Doe IV,” would testify that Jeffs’ teachings glorify procreation as a gift to God and that the women in his sect are taught to serve God by bearing children, as many as one a year.
When she learned of the marriage plan, Doe went straight to Jeffs and begged him to reconsider, saying that if she had to be married off so young, could it “at least [be] someone else,” Washington County attorney Brock Belnap told a courtroom packed evenly with reporters and devout followers of Jeffs.
“She did not want to be in the same room” with her older cousin, Belnap told jurors. “She did not want to hold his hand.”
When Jeffs allegedly urged her to follow his directive, she told him, “I feel like I’m too young,” Belnap said, adding that Jeffs replied that “the Lord wants you to go through with this.”
Belnap said the girl fled the room crying and demanded a meeting with Jeffs’ father, Rulon Jeffs, who then led the sect, but had fallen ill in his old age. Appealing to the elderly church leader, Belnap said Doe got on her knees and begged him, “Please don’t make me do this. This is my first cousin” and “my heart is telling me this is wrong for me.”
The marriage went forward as planned.
The prosecutor told of the young girl putting pajamas on over her clothing and pretending to be asleep while her new husband showered before entering the couple’s marriage bed a queen-size mattress in her family home with a baby-blue comforter that the girl’s parents had decorated with a heart design and had left a plate of cookies on to “cheer her up” in her despair.
“As she cried and as she said ‘Please don’t,'” her new husband deflowered her, Belnap told jurors.
Utah’s Age of Consent Is 14
But Jeffs’ defense team countered with a PowerPoint presentation showing photos of the young girl smiling beside her new groom and reminded jurors that the state of Utah allows for 14-year-old girls to legally consent to sex.
Defense attorney Tara Isaacson, a statuesque, blonde Diane Sawyer lookalike who stands 6’1 in her ubiquitous high heels, reminded jurors that the practice of polygamy was not on trial and that the core question in the case was whether Jane Doe IV “was really raped.”
Jeffs “did not encourage [Doe] to have sex.”
“He did not encourage her to have unwanted sex. & Mr. Jeffs and [Doe] never explicitly discussed sexual intercourse,” Isaacson said, at one point walking over and resting her hand on Jeffs’ shoulders as the defendant sat unmoving. “He counseled [Doe]. He counseled [her husband], ‘Make this marriage work.’ He never counseled her to submit to rape.”
Isaacson acknowledged that the sect practices a “patriarchal culture where wives are obedient & but only if the husband is acting in righteousness. Rape, of course, would never be righteous.”
She said Jeffs’ role as leader of the community was to encourage marriage, not rape.
“What did Warren Jeffs have to do with what was going on her bedroom? Did he even know she was being forced to have sex against her will?”
“Pressure to marry is different from pressure to submit to rape,” Isaacson said. She urged jurors to look beyond what she deemed negative portrayals of the sect in the media, though attempts to interview sect members outside the court were met with polite, but consistent, disciplined silence.
‘Treat Each Other Like Snakes’
At the heart of the case is the question of whether or not the teenage girls in the sect have any real say in whom they marry. Former sect members and historians have recounted stories of girls preemptively seeking church leaders’ blessings in marrying their teen crushes. It’s a tactic that can backfire because any attraction between teenage girls and boys in the community is reportedly discouraged.
“The term that was used was that [prior to marriage] boys should treat girls and girls should treat boys like snakes,” Doe told prosecutors from the witness stand Thursday. “There was nothing permitted romantically.” Punishment for unauthorized romantic infractions, she said, ranged from social ostracization to being deemed “unclean” for even kissing a romantic interest.
To hear it from the accuser, advanced sexual activity would have been clumsy and uninformed at best. She testified that no sexual education was offered in sect schools or at home and that young girls were assured sex and its myriad complexities “would be taught to us by our husbands.”
During the defense’s opening argument, Isaacson quoted her client’s teachings to his sect that “there is no force” in the group’s religious beliefs and that the spiritual substance of marriages by “celestial law” as they are known among the FLDS followers is rooted in a covenant between husband and wife and the faith of the participants that God has ordained their leaders with His true will.
Jeffs spoke of these covenants in audiotapes of his sermons played in court Thursday.
But some of the seven women and five men on the jury appeared concerned to hear a section of one sermon Jeffs gave to a home economics class full of fifth- and sixth-grade girls at the sect’s Alta Academy grade school in November 1997.
During the sermon, Jeffs lauded the sect’s system of arranged marriages. “You don’t have to worry about ‘which man’ and ‘do they like you’ and all of the silliness that goes on in the world,” he said, according to the tape played by prosecutors. “It frees you completely from all the terrible mistakes that girls can make.”
Even jailed, accused of rape and incest and facing a raft of civil lawsuits and another criminal trial in Arizona, Jeffs looms large in this remote, hauntingly beautiful stretch of Utah desert.
He arrived at court Thursday morning in a county helicopter, wearing a bulletproof vest over his well-tailored black suit and silver tie. Outside the courthouse, heavily armed members of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department took up surveillance posts throughout the neighborhood, on street corners, high up on bluffs overlooking the city and barely disguised inside unmarked white pickup trucks in nearby parking lots.
But as opening arguments began, it became apparent that the biggest threat to the self-proclaimed prophet may be Doe, the shy, soft-spoken young woman with purple nail polish and silver hoop earrings on the witness stand.