A Texas jury has convicted polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs of child sexual assault Thursday in a case stemming from two young followers he took as brides in what his church calls “spiritual marriages.”
The 55-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stood stone-faced as the verdict was read.
Jeffs, who acted as his own attorney, faces up to life in prison. The jury went immediately into sentencing proceedings. They had deliberated on a verdict for more than three hours.
Prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. They also played audio recordings in which Jeffs was heard instructing young women on how to please him sexually.
Jeffs has claimed he was the victim of religious persecution. The FLDS, which has at least 10,000 members nationwide, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. The church believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven and that Jeffs is God’s spokesman on earth.
Police had raided the group’s remote West Texas ranch in April 2008, finding women dressed in frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century as well as seeing underage girls who were clearly pregnant. The call to an abuse hotline that spurred the raid turned out to be a hoax, and more than 400 children who had been placed in protective custody were eventually returned to their families.
But authorities brought charges against several men from the group, with Jeffs by far the highest-profile defendant.
Jeffs, 55, is charged with child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault in connection with his “spiritual marriages” to two girls, ages 12 and 14, at his sect’s Texas ranch. He faces up to 119 years in prison if convicted.
Jeffs, in what was to have been his closing argument, simply stood silently in the courtroom for more than 20 minutes before quietly saying: “I am at peace.” He then sat down.
Jeffs is considered the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and has argued in loud court outbursts that the court was trampling on his religious rights by trying the case.
Jeffs acted as his own attorney and stood mute during nearly all 30 minutes Thursday of his allotted time for a closing argument. At one point he mumbled, “I am peace,” and said no more. [...]
Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs gave a delayed opening statement about religious persecution Wednesday and dramatically slowed down his trial, where he is defending himself on charges of sexually abusing underage girls.
His surprise 30-minute statement followed prosecutors resting their case against him, after they played an audiotape of what they said was him assaulting a 12-year-old he had taken as a “spiritual wife.”
Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, evoked images of the civil rights movement and mentioned former Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr. in his statement He also asked the jury to remember constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
His sect believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church’s 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.
After his statement, which attorneys have the option to make when they begin presenting their cases, he called one of his church’s members to testify. JD Roundy read from the Book of Mormon and then answered questions about the church’s beliefs, with Jeffs pausing for a few minutes after each answer before asking another question.
Jeffs’ trial had been going at breakneck speed, with prosecutors presenting witness after witness while Jeffs largely sat silent.
Roundy is a member of the FLDS and was present each day for the trial. Jeffs questioned Roundy for four hours, which basically amounted to Jeffs having his witness explainthe tenets of their faith, in an attempt to establish his claim for religious freedom. On cross examination, prosecutor Eric Nichols asked Roundy a series of questions meant to discredit Jeffs’ assertions that his actions were based on his beliefs.
“Have you ever instructed girls how to prepare themselves to have sex with you?” Nichols asked Roundy.
“Have you ever engaged in sexual relations with a 15 year old?”
“Have you ever had sexual relations with a 12 year old?”
After a brief re-direct questioning of Roundy that spanned the end of yesterday’s proceedings and the early part this morning, Jeffs was told to call his next witness. He refused to say anything and the judge then rested the case for him.
Coalition denounces Warren Jeffs’ acts
Meanwhile the Associated Press reports that
A coalition of Utah polygamous groups is denouncing the alleged acts of sexual assault that have surfaced during the Texas trial of sect leader Warren Jeffs.
The Principle Rights Coalition represents five polygamous churches, along with others who practice polygamy but are unaffiliated with any church.
In a statement Thursday, the coalition says its members are devastated that abuse would be perpetrated under the cloak of their religion.