ST. GEORGE, Utah — The newest member of Warren Jeffs‘ defense team is a pollster.
His attorneys want the criminal trial moved to Salt Lake County, saying months of publicity in Washington County have soured the public on Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
He is in jail, charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 spiritual marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
A poll conducted for the defense found 52 percent of 210 Washington County residents believe Jeffs is “definitely guilty,” according to documents filed in 5th District Court. Another 23 percent say Jeffs was “probably guilty.”
Some 270 miles north in Salt Lake County, 39 percent of 206 respondents said they believe Jeffs is “definitely guilty” and an identical percentage said he was “probably guilty.”
The survey was conducted Feb. 5-14 and has a sampling error margin of 6.9 percentage points. The respondents said they got most of their information about the case through the news media.
“The 13 percent difference of respondents who believe the defendant is definitely guilty in Washington County versus Salt Lake County is statistically significant,” pollster Dan Jones said in an affidavit.
“Based on the survey data, I do not believe that the defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial in Washington County,” he said.
Jones is expected to testify today when Judge James Shumate hears arguments on the change-of-venue motion. It’s not known if he will rule from the bench.
Jeffs’ trial was set for April 23, but Shumate postponed it last week and said he will instead hear arguments about evidence that day. He didn’t set a new trial date.
Eight jurors and an undetermined number of alternates will be needed for trial. Prosecutors are opposing a new location.
“We think the people of Washington County can provide a fair and impartial trial,” said Brian Filter of the county attorney’s office.
Prosecutors also reject other arguments for moving the trial, including the claim that Jeffs’ religious culture is different from most in Washington County and the negative perception of his FLDS church.
Nearly 10,000 strong, FLDS members live in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., shunning contact with outsiders. The church practices polygamy in arranged marriages that often involve young girls and older men.
“Those alleged ‘differences’ would distinguish the defendant and the victim from most residents of any county in Utah. Therefore, the court should not change venue,” prosecutors said in a court filing.
Jeffs, 51, is considered by followers to be a prophet who communicates directly with God. He is known for demanding perfect obedience from his faithful.
The judge will also hear arguments today on other issues, including a request to dismiss the case.