SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Just over a year after fugitive Warren Jeffs was arrested in a traffic stop outside Las Vegas, the polygamous sect leader goes on trial in southern Utah, accused of coercing the 2001 marriage and rape of a 14-year-old follower by her 19-year-cousin.
Jeffs, 51, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice for his role in the religious union.
The selection of jurors begins Friday at a St. George convention center where 300 people will be asked to fill out a multipage questionnaire to help determine their suitability to hear the case.
On Monday, attorneys will conduct individual juror interviews behind the closed doors of 5th District Judge James Shumate’s office. Opening statements in the trial are planned for Wednesday.
For a conviction, jurors must decide that Jeffs intentionally and knowingly encouraged the girl’s cousin to commit unlawful sex with the 14-year-old against her will, according to proposed jury instructions prosecutors have filed with the court.
But impaneling an impartial jury of eight could be difficult, some observers and legal experts say.
For nearly two years prior to his August 2006 arrest in a Cadillac Escalade on Interstate 15, Jeffs was on the run from police and the subject of hundreds of news stories, which only escalated after the arrest.
“There’s been so much media coverage it’s going to be difficult to find people that have not already formed an opinion,” Provo attorney Randy Spencer said. “That could put the defense at a disadvantage. The people that they find who claim to not have much knowledge of the case may not be typical peers.”
And although the case is not related to polygamy – the religious marriage between the girl and her cousin was monogamous – jurors may see the practice of plural marriage as the elephant in the room.
“How could they not?” said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta defense attorney and author with ties to the FLDS community. “You’re in a community down there that’s heavily LDS, where lots of people have ancestors that were polygamists. So they’re not going to see it as weird, but some are going to be embarrassed by it.”
Hugging the border with Arizona, Utah’s Washington County has been home to polygamists since the early 20th century. Nearly 300 miles south of the Salt Lake City headquarters of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, polygamists hid in the remote red rock country after the practice was banned in 1890 as a condition of statehood.
The FLDS continue to believe plural marriage promises glorification in heaven. The fundamentalist church’s members number an estimated 10,000, living mostly in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The arranged marriages often involve underage girls and older men.
“I think they are generally good people, but certainly for some (potential jurors), having them in your backyard may solidify some stereotypical opinions,” said Spencer, who noted that his own family tree includes polygamous ancestors.
Defense attorneys had hoped polling data that showed 52 percent of the 210 Washington County respondents believed Jeffs was guilty or likely guilty of the charges filed would persuade Shumate to move the trial to Salt Lake County, where the population is approaching 1 million.
Shumate has criticized some media accounts of the Jeffs case, but said in March he couldn’t know the effect on potential jurors until an attempt was made to seat a jury.
Jeffs has led the FLDS church since 2002. Followers see him as a prophet who communicates with God and holds dominion over their salvation. Former church members say the one-time school principal reigns with an iron fist, demanding perfect obedience from followers.
Prosecutors contend Jeffs’ stature as church prophet left the 14-year-old girl powerless to do anything but submit sexually to her husband. They contend the girl twice told Jeffs she didn’t want to be married or have sex, but was instructed it was her “spiritual duty” because the union was sanctioned by God.
At 14, the girl was legally unable to consent to sex.
Jeffs’ attorney Wally Bugden contends Jeffs is being prosecuted for his faith and that the counsel he provided the girl did not differ from advice religious leaders from other denominations might give.