ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, a fugitive for nearly two years, appeared in a Utah courtroom Wednesday and said he was willing to wait several weeks for a judge to decide whether to send him to trial on charges of arranging an underage marriage.
“Yes, sir. Yes, your honor,” Jeffs replied when Judge James Shumate asked if the delay was acceptable.
The judge set a Nov. 21 probable cause hearing and said he would address Jeffs’ bond status at that time. He remains in jail.
The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes for the self-proclaimed prophet who heads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Jeffs is charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony that carries life in prison.
Under his suit, tie and white shirt, Jeffs was wearing a bulletproof vest. There was tight security inside and outside the Washington County courthouse, including SWAT teams.
Prosecutors claim Jeffs, 50, forced a teenage girl to enter a spiritual marriage with an older man and submit to sex to produce children.
The girl twice told Jeffs she didn’t want to marry or have sex, but was told it was her “spiritual duty” to submit because the marriage had been arranged by God, according to court filings.
“The victim is doing well,” Brian Filter, chief deputy county attorney, said outside court, adding that he expects the victim will testify at the hearing.
Defense attorney Walter Bugden said “absolutely” when reporters asked if this was religious persecution.
“Let’s wait until we can have a trial in this matter before we jump to the conclusion that Mr. Jeffs is guilty of anything,” Bugden said.
Named to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list in May, Jeffs was arrested last month during a traffic stop near Las Vegas. He had been a fugitive for nearly two years.
Jeffs, who took over the leadership of the church from his father in 2002, is also facing two felony charges in Arizona for a similarly arranged marriage. He’ll face those charges after the Utah case.
A lawyer who has represented members of Jeffs’ sect said before the hearing that finding a jury with impartial — or even mild — views on polygamy may be difficult in Washington County.
“There’s a real skepticism brought to bear on their claims,” said Rod 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.
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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