ST. GEORGE, Utah €” For the judge who ordered a polygamist sect leader to stand trial on charges of rape as an accomplice, it all came down to a wedding ceremony in a Nevada motel.
Standing before Warren Jeffs in her wedding dress, the 14-year-old girl said she refused to utter €˜€˜I do,” hold hands or kiss the groom. She reluctantly agreed to marry a 19-year-old cousin when her mother stepped in.
Then she locked herself in the bathroom and sobbed.
€˜€˜To say her agreement was reluctant, this court finds is very clear,” 5th District Judge James Shumate ruled Thursday, noting the girl objected long after the April 2001 ceremony.
Jeffs, 51, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
His attorneys contend he’s being prosecuted for his peculiar religion, which practices arranged marriages and polygamy in communities of about 10,000 people on the Utah-Arizona border.
Prosecutors claim they can prove Jeffs twice ordered the girl to submit sexually to her cousin. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. Jury selection was set for April 23.
Besides finding probable cause for a trial, Shumate made several rulings €” a few in Jeffs’ favor.
He said prosecutors cannot assert the girl was a victim of incest and cannot argue that Jeffs coerced the girl to get married. She and her cousin were united in an FLDS religious ceremony and never held a marriage license.
Prosecutors can, however, ask a jury to find that Jeffs, as someone in a position of trust, enticed an unwilling girl to get married over her repeated objections. They maintain that Jeffs insisted her salvation was at stake.
Deputy Attorney Ryan Shaum said the restrictions won’t tie the prosecution’s hands.
Rejecting an argument by the defense, the judge also said marriage automatically implies sexual relations, even though €˜€˜those words were not used” by the girl in a culture that doesn’t discuss the specifics of sex.
So how will a jury see it?
€˜€˜It’s going to be a hard battle to fight because he has very good attorneys,” said Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County, Ariz., attorney’s office, which has a criminal case pending against Jeffs.
Ken Driggs, an Atlanta lawyer and expert on polygamy cases, said Jeffs believes €˜€˜God will protect him.”
€˜€˜But God’s not going to be in the jury box,” Driggs said.
The girl in the case is now 20, out of the sect, married to another man and mother of a new baby.
As head of the FLDS church since 2002, Jeffs is the highest-ranking leader of a Utah polygamist group to be prosecuted since the 1940s, historians said.
It is unclear how much the faithful have learned about the significant step in his criminal case, although more than a dozen were in the courtroom.
People in the border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, lead insular lives, forbidden from watching television, using the Internet or reading newspapers. Jeffs, meanwhile, remains in jail where he still directs his flock.
€˜€˜They will hear that all went well, the Lord has it in hand … and Warren is innocent,” said Ross Chatwin, a dissident who lives in Hildale.
The streets were quiet Thursday night, hours after Shumate said the case would go to trial. Dozens of shoppers ignored a reporter’s questions at a grocery store.
€˜€˜We don’t follow the news,” said a woman working the counter at the only gas station in Colorado City.
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