A lawyer who has defended members of a polygamous sect has warned that leader Warren Jeffs may find it hard to get an unbiased jury in conservative Washington County.
Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with two felony counts of rape as an accomplice, accused of arranging a “spiritual marriage” between an underage girl and an older man.
But finding a jury that holds an impartial – or even mild – view of polygamy could be tough in the county, about two hours east of Las Vegas, said lawyer Rod Parker.
“There’s a real skepticism brought to bear on their claims,” said Parker, who believes sect members are perceived differently than other clients he’s defended. “It’s very subtle, but it’s there.”
For nearly 100 years, members of the sect, which numbers nearly 10,000, have lived a quiet, insular life in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The sect broke away from the Mormon church more than a century ago and has been disavowed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jeffs, 50, is facing two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice. Affidavits filed in the case say he forced a girl under age 18 to marry an older man and submit “mind, body and soul to your husband.” He was on the run for nearly two years before being arrested in August during a traffic stop in Las Vegas.
Jeffs was expected to attend a court hearing Wednesday to set dates for a preliminary hearing and possible trial. His bail status might also be discussed.
Besides the Utah charges, Jeffs is facing two felony charges in Mohave County, Ariz., for allegedly arranging a marriage involving an underage girl. He’s expected to be prosecuted there after Utah proceedings have concluded.
Parker represented Rodney Holm, a Hildale police officer convicted of bigamy in 2003, and last year tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Utah Supreme Court to keep a polygamist judge on the bench.
In the Holm case, questionnaires that asked about polygamy revealed a strong bias among prospective jurors, said Parker, who is not acting as Jeffs’ attorney.
“I thought going into it, that being in southern Utah where people had a little more interaction with the fundamentalists, that it would be better,” he said. “We were surprised.”
Whether prosecutors state it or not, polygamy will be an underlying factor at Jeffs’ trial, said John Bucher, who represented a client on charges of bigamy and child rape in 2001 in a different county.
“I don’t think you can say, ‘The perpetrator is a member of a polygamist organization,’ and try to separate that out from the crime in the jurors’ mind,” Bucher said.
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