Former FLDS sect president on trial for bigamy

Religion News Blog — The former leader of a breakaway Mormon sect charged with being married to more than one woman at the same time went on trial in Texas on Wednesday, putting a spotlight on the rarely prosecuted crime of bigamy.

Reuters reports

A jury of five women and seven men was chosen to hear testimony in the trial of Wendell Loy Nielsen, 71, a former president of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who is charged with three counts of bigamy.

The sect, which teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven he must have at least three wives, is estimated to have 10,000 followers in North America.

Bigamy is the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still legally married to another.

By comparison, polygamy — a practice the FLDS is known for — is a marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time.”

Polygny is the condition or practice of having more than one wife at one time, and polyandry is the condition or practice of having more than one husband at one time.

According to the San Angelo Standard Times

Bigamy cases going to trial are a rarity, said Patrick Metze, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the Texas Tech University School of Law.

Each count of bigamy is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.

Last October Nielsen pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to 10 years probation. However, when he could not get his probation transferred to where his son lives in Colorado, Nielsen said he didn’t agree to the terms of his probation. He then revoked his plea and asked to go to trial.

Reuters says

Nielsen was one of 12 men indicted for crimes including child sexual assault, bigamy and performing an illegal marriage after an April 2008 law enforcement raid on the sect’s Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas to check on accusations of sexual assault.

Ten of the men have been convicted, including church leader Warren Jeffs, who was found guilty last year of sexually assaulting two underage girls he wed as spiritual brides, the younger of whom was just 12 years old.

Jeffs is in prison in protective custody in Palestine, Texas, for life plus 20 years. But he still exerts influence in the sect through his brothers, sends out prophetic messages to public officials and has taken out advertisements in newspapers across the country.

Nielsen was the president of the sect’s corporation in Utah until he stepped down so Jeffs, who was still the supreme leader, could assume the presidency early in 2011.

Nielsen has reportedly by been excommunicated from the FLDS.

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