Are laptop computers, iPods, thumb drives, digital recorders and CDs the instruments of a religious leader’s communications to his flock? Or the means for a fugitive on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list to stay on the run?
A federal judge will be asked today to consider whether some of the evidence seized when Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs was arrested last year should be declared “protected” under his First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
“These sacred revelations are at the core of the group’s religious beliefs and they cannot be shared with outsiders,” Jeffs’ defense attorney Walter Bugden Jr. wrote in an emergency motion filed in March.
Lawyers for the FLDS leader want the documents sealed and reviewed behind closed doors to determine who gets to see them.
Jeffs’ lawyers also want to keep the papers from being seen by lawyers for the United Effort Plan Trust (the financial arm of the FLDS Church), which is under court control amid allegations Jeffs and other top FLDS leaders fleeced it.
Trust lawyers are now asking a judge in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court to force Jeffs and his defense attorneys to give up what documents they do have. The court-appointed special fiduciary of the UEP Trust is investigating the disappearance of assets from the $110 million trust. They are also trying to collect on an $8.8 million civil judgment against Jeffs and other trustees.
“The fiduciary is informed and believes Mr. Jeffs and the other removed trustees refuse to recognize this court’s authority and the appointment of the fiduciary and continue to operate as de facto trustees,” fiduciary lawyer Jeffrey L. Shields wrote in court papers obtained by the Deseret Morning News on Wednesday.
Objecting to the subpoenas, Bugden said the materials were protected by attorney-client privilege, as well as Jeffs’ religious freedom and fair trial rights.
“Release of such materials at this juncture of the prosecution would jeopardize Mr. Jeffs’ Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel,” Bugden wrote in a letter to Shields filed with the court papers.
Jeffs was arrested during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas last year. Inside the Cadillac Escalade he was riding in, the FBI also found wigs, two GPS devices, religious books, a duffel bag of letters, prepaid cell phones, prepaid credit cards and more than $57,000 in cash, among other items.
An affidavit filed with a search warrant says the FBI is looking for any evidence from Jeffs’ time on the run. However, defense lawyers fear that some of that evidence goes deeper into the FLDS Church’s beliefs and membership records.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah denies it is going after Jeffs’ religious beliefs.
“Defendant is being prosecuted because he fled to avoid prosecution, not because of the religious organization to which he belongs,” assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Bennett wrote in a response.
Jeffs, 51, is facing a grand jury indictment in Salt Lake City’s federal court accusing him of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. It stems from the polygamous sect leader’s time on the run.
In St. George’s 5th District Court, Jeffs is charged with first-degree felony rape as an accomplice. He is accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
A hearing is scheduled in St. George on Friday over a motion brought by news media outlets to release documents that have been sealed in the Jeffs case. Defense attorneys have filed a number of papers, presumably dealing with issues of the FLDS leader’s mental competency.
The Deseret Morning News has reported that Jeffs renounced his role as “prophet” of the FLDS Church, once in a jailhouse conversation with one of his brothers, as well as in a note he tried to give to the judge at the end of his March court appearance.
After the Deseret Morning News had a photograph of the note analyzed, Jeffs’ lawyers filed a motion asking the judge to ban cameras from future court appearances. A coalition of news media outlets, including this newspaper, are resisting those efforts.