SAN ANGELO, Texas — In the harshest sentence yet for members of a Texas polygamist group, a Tom Green County jury has sentenced Merril Leroy Jessop, 35, to 75 years in prison and imposed a $10,000 fine on one count of sexual assault of a child.
The jury deliberated on the sentence from 10:30 a.m. today until 2:35 p.m.
Jessop was convicted Wednesday on allegations that he illegally married and fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl while living at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Schleicher County in 2006. He is a member of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and was a resident of the sect’s YFZ Ranch outside of Eldorado.
[Lead defense attorney Dan] Hurley said his team would try to appeal the case on grounds of illegal search and seizure, referring to the raid on the YFZ Ranch in April 2008 when law enforcement personnel executed a search warrant for a girl who called in an said she was being abused. Authorities now believe the call to have been a hoax.
Jessop’s crime was a first-degree felony, with a range of punishment from 5 years with the recommendation of probation to 99 years or life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
One of the prosecuting attorneys, Wes Mau, began the closing arguments for the punishment phase with a focus on deterrence.
“Deterrence requires a price that’s too high. We set them high enough so that people don’t want to pay that price,” Mau said.
Mau recalled how Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran went to the ranch with a Texas law book to show the residents what they were not supposed to do.
Jessop’s offense occurred after Doran’s visit.
“Merril Leroy Jessop’s violation was flagrant and open,” Mau said. “They ignored Sheriff Doran.”
Mau said rehabilitation for Jessop would be ineffective.
“This defendant doesn’t think what he has done is wrong. He thinks it’s a part of the path of salvation,” Mau said.
Hurley described the way that Jessop was called to marry the girl, being called in after work to appear before the former FLDS leader and his father and being married with about half an hour notice.
“Was it his free choice to do that that evening?”
Hurley reminded jurors not to judge Jessop for what others in the FLDS community had done, and to look at pictures of Jessop with his wives and children.
Hurley questioned whether it is appropriate use of taxpayer money to imprison someone to “satisfy the desires of some politicians.”
He noted that the law had changed, apparently because of the FLDS, to make sexual assault of a child a first-degree felony as opposed to a second-degree felony.
The first-degree enhancement was added by the state Legislature in 2006.
The probation process, which the jurors have the option of recommending if the sentence is 10 years or less in prison, would allow probation officers to visit the YFZ Ranch and check up on members of the FLDS.
The previous highest sentence was 33 years in the trial of Allan Keate. Raymond Merril Jessop, Merril Leroy Jessop’s half brother, got 10 years and $8,000 as a second degree felony since his offense occurred before changes in law. Michael Emack also was charged under a second-degree felony and he plead no contest for a seven-year sentence.
The next trial is for Lehi Barlow Jeffs for sexual assault of a child on April 26.
Eight more men from the YFZ Ranch are under indictments because of evidence from the raid, [Lead Prosecutor Eric] Nichols said.