ST. GEORGE – While criticizing an area newspaper’s coverage of the case, a judge Tuesday refused to move the trial for polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs – but said that could change if he finds he can’t seat an impartial jury.
Fifth District Judge James L. Shumate also rebuffed two challenges to Jeffs’ prosecution on charges of being an accomplice to rape, upholding an earlier ruling that there was adequate evidence and rejecting defense arguments that a section of Utah’s rape statute is unconstitutionally vague.
While refusing to move the trial, Shumate criticized The Spectrum newspaper’s coverage of the case. He said, however, that if he interviews 24 potential jurors and still hasn’t seated a panel, he will immediately move the trial to Salt Lake City.
Shumate said he will be looking for jurors with no opinion whatsoever about Jeffs’ guilt.
The judge refused a request to stay the decision while the defense appeals the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Jeffs appeared noticeably thinner in court Tuesday morning. He seemed unable to focus on the proceedings, often closing his eyes and occasionally appearing to nod off.
At the end of the hearing, Jeffs stood up, holding what appeared to be a folded piece of paper.
“I need to just take care of one matter,” he said to Shumate. “Can I take care of it now?”
The judge refused.
In past hearings, Jeffs has smiled or made eye contact with supporters in the courtroom. On Tuesday, he sat down after a single glance toward approximately 16 members of his church who attended.
Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with two felony counts of being an accomplice to rape for allegedly conducting an arranged marriage in 2001 between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
In court Tuesday, Richard Wright of Las Vegas, one of Jeffs’ attorneys, argued the use of the word “entice” in Utah’s rape law is too vague to understand.
Shumate disagreed, saying he believed Utah lawmakers deliberately chose the word, knowing teenagers are “subject to whim in many instances of their decision-making processes.”
The law is intended as a “guard rail” around youth, he added. Jeffs is accused of performing the girl’s marriage over her protests, Shumate noted.
“How can I rule that isn’t behavior targeted by this statute?” the judge said.
Tara Isaacson of Salt Lake City, another of Jeffs’ attorneys, unsuccessfully argued that prosecutors had not shown enough evidence to require him to stand trial.
No one – not even the girl’s own family – knew the marriage would allegedly lead to non-consensual sex, Isaacson asserted.
But Shumate said Jeffs’ alleged actions and the guidance provided by higher court rulings supported ordering Jeffs to trial.
Pollster Dan Jones is slated to testify later Tuesday. Jeffs’ defense team has submitted a survey they say shows significantly more people in Washington County than Salt Lake County consider him “definitely guilty,” and that many came to that conclusion based on media reports.