SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A Washington County jury’s conviction of a police officer for bigamy and illegal sex with a minor could bring a new round of prosecutions targeting those who exploit children in plural marriages, state lawyers say.
The officer’s attorneys, however, say their defense and promised appeal means Rodney Holm and polygamists like him have a better chance of legalizing the religious practice.
Holm, 37, a former police officer in the border towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz. was found guilty of three felony counts of bigamy and having sexual relations with a 16- and 17-year-old when their partner is 10 or more years older, unless the couple is legally married. Each of the counts holds a penalty of up to 5 years in prison. A sentencing has yet to be scheduled.
Holm took Ruth Stubbs as his third wife in a 1998 religious ceremony, when she was 16 and he was 32. Holm was legally married to Stubbs’ sister, Suzie.
Polygamy was a part of early belief of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was abandoned more than a century ago as the territory sought statehood. The Utah Constitution bans it and the Mormon church now excommunicates those who advocate it, but it is believed that tens of thousands in Utah continue the practice.
Members of the FLDS church, including Holm and most of the residents of the border towns of Hildale and Colorado City, still practice polygamy as a commandment from God.
After the trial, state prosecutors and Holm’s defense lawyers struck equally defiant poses.
Ron Barton, the Attorney General’s office investigator who probed the Holm case, said his office was looking into other such cases in Hildale and Colorado City.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he hopes the conviction sends a message.
”(First) to the women and children, that there is justice, that they do live in America, that if they seek help it will be provided,” Shurtleff said. ”The second message is to the leaders, that what they do is criminal and if they continue to do it they’ll be next.”
The Attorney General’s office is hosting a ”Polygamy Summit” next week in St. George to discuss how to deal with and prosecute future cases. Local and federal law enforcement officials from Utah and Arizona and officials from school districts, children’s welfare groups and the Department of Child and Family Services have been invited, Shurtleff said.
Shurtleff said the state’s effort is about prosecuting crimes, not religion.
”That’s what they would want people to believe, that somehow we’re cracking down on polygamy. We don’t have the resources to do that. We’re cracking down on crimes that are occurring in this group.
”I don’t see anybody who would say that you can commit crimes, particularly against children, based on their religious beliefs.”
Shurtleff’s office is focusing particular attention on Warren Jeffs, son of Rulon Jeffs, the late prophet of the FLDS church who said he had a prophecy that Holm and Stubbs should marry. If the younger Jeffs continues to order and perform marriages involving minors, he could face prosecution for felony aiding and abetting.
Holm’s defense attorney, Rod Parker, said his client was prosecuted for his religious beliefs and will appeal Thursday’s conviction, which took jurors less than two hours to decide.
Holm’s attorneys have cited the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling which overturned sodomy laws in several states, including Utah, as the key to an appeal.
John Whitehead, a constitutional attorney and president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, says the Texas case would likely make a difference.
”If he has a sincere religious belief, they’ve got an argument then,” Whitehead said.
The high court’s ruling held that there is no compelling state interest in matters of intimate sexual practices between consenting adults.
In the Holm trial, Ruth Stubbs testified she agreed to the marriage and that it was approved by her father, David Stubbs. In Utah, 16-year-olds can marry with parental consent.
The Texas case ”has changed the playing field. I think they have a case,” Whitehead said. ”What it sounds like to me is he’s being prosecuted for not getting a piece of paper.”
But Rowenna Erickson, a former plural wife and co-founder of the group Tapestry Against Polygamy, says these cases have nothing to do with religion or relations between consenting adults.
”A common practice in these polygamous cults is to marry very, very young girls,” Erickson. ”They’re basing this on what God wants to do. I dare to say that God does not want you to do this.
”Man created this for their own selfish interests. The women and the children are the victims. It’s hell. Nobody has an identity. You don’t know who you are, the children don’t have an identity.”