ST. GEORGE — A 5th District judge on Friday set a September trial date for polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs after revealing that evaluations show he is competent to proceed.
Judge James L. Shumate set the trial for Sept. 10-21, with jury selection to begin on Sept. 7. The judge also refused to ban a photographer from the proceedings but did set tighter media restrictions.
Shumate disclosed that he asked the defense to have Jeffs evaluated after the sect leader appeared emaciated and detached during a March 27 hearing. The judge said he made the decision to seal the defense petition and his subsequent order granting it.
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A media coalition, including The Salt Lake Tribune, had petitioned the court to unseal the order, petition and two other related records.
Attorney Jeff Hunt, who represented the coalition, told Shumate that the public’s right to know what was happening in the case and a constitutional presumption of access to court proceedings outweigh Jeffs’ privacy rights.
Shumate, who described Jeffs as “absolutely healthy,” agreed Friday to release his order finding Jeffs competent and, after he blacks out some information, the petition and evaluations of Jeffs by two different psychologists. He said the full records would be made available after a verdict in the case unless the defense raises objections.
Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with two felony counts of being an accomplice to rape for performing a 2001 marriage to which the 14-year-old bride protested.
He has been incarcerated since Sept. 5 at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane. In January he was taken to a local hospital for a health check. Since April, he has been visited at the jail numerous times by physician and FLDS member Lloyd Barlow, as well as several of his wives and his mother.
Jeffs, 51, looked remarkably better than he did at his last court hearing. He appears to have gained weight and even spent time outside. Jeffs grinned broadly at the 20 or so FLDS followers as he entered the courtroom, waving at some of them.
After the hearing, Walter Bugden, one of Jeffs’ attorneys, attributed his previously frail appearance to the hardship of solitary confinement and regular fasting.
“Because of the fasting, Mr. Jeffs lost a lot of weight and became frail,” Bugden said. “I am glad to say he is better now. We are ready to go forward.”
Jeffs’ attorneys had sought to bar a media photographer from the proceedings after the Deseret Morning News published contents of a note the sect leader attempted to hand to the judge at the last hearing.
Bugden argued the newspaper had “invaded the defense camp” and intruded on privileged communication between the attorneys and their client.
Shumate ruled that an invasion had occurred but refused to ban photographs or bar the newspaper from the proceedings. He instead said media must not trespass privacy in the courtroom by using enhanced photographs or information that is not part of the official record.
Hunt, the media coalition’s attorney, had argued that there was no indication Jeffs wanted to engage in a private conversation with his attorneys or the court when he stood during the March 27 hearing and asked to address the judge.
Shumate refused and advised Jeffs to talk to his attorneys.
Jeffs held a note in his hand, on which he had reportedly written a statement abdicating his post as leader of the FLDS church — later confirmed by law enforcement sources.
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap told Shumate that while he, too, does not want to worry about eavesdropping or privacy invasion in court, a distinction needed to be made about what Jeffs’ intended that day — particularly given what happened later.
Belnap said that Jeffs approached a bailiff as he left the courtroom and said he wanted to hold a press conference to read the note to the media. The bailiff relayed Jeffs’ requests to Mary Reap, corrections chief for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. She denied it.
Belnap said Jeffs’ attorneys later thanked Reap for making that decision.
“I don’t know what was in the letter but the evidence is it was intended to be communicated to people other than counsel,” Belnap said.
Belnap said later that he wanted to “call upon” law enforcement to remember their obligation to respect the court proceedings and ensure a fair trial.
Jeffs’ attorneys have sought to question a Deseret Morning News reporter about the law enforcement sources that confirmed the note’s content.
Shumate quashed that subpoena because it had been served on the reporter only a day earlier. He said that if the defense wants to pursue the matter, it can file it again with more notice.
Deseret Morning News Editor Joe Cannon said afterwards the judge’s rulings were “good today for the press and the public’s right to know.”
Bugden said he hoped the judge’s rulings send a “loud and clear message to the media [to] respect the rights of privacy of all citizens, even someone accused of a crime.”