As trial begins for Warren Jeffs, jurors are asked if they can set aside religious beliefs

ST. GEORGE, Utah — Potential jurors in the trial of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs were asked Friday if they could set aside their feelings about his controversial religious beliefs and focus on whether he “enticed” a teen bride to consummate her marriage to her cousin.

Jeffs, the so-called “prophet” and leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), faces five years to life in prison if convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice for allegedly forcing a 14-year-old follower to marry her 19-year-old cousin and have sex with him.

On Friday, his trial began with a pool of 300 prospective jurors from Washington County, Utah, appearing in Fifth District Court to fill out a questionnaire screening them for bias or hardship.

One of the main topics in the 11-page questionnaire, which prosecutors and defense lawyers will use to help narrow the pool to the eight jurors who will decide Jeffs’ fate, addressed the prospective panelists’ familiarity with the FLDS, a group that broke from the mainstream Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, more than a century ago over the issue of polygamy.

Although Washington County contains the city of Hildale, one of the main FLDS settlements, it is unclear whether any of its 6,000 residents appeared for jury selection in Jeffs’ trial. But, in a jurisdiction where the dominant religion of Mormonism often clashes with the FLDS, the nature of the survey’s questions implied that issues of faith could present biases for and against Jeffs.

Since Jeffs’ capture in 2006 after nearly two years on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the secretive practices and isolated communities of his followers have been the topics of hundreds of news stories highlighting the sect’s principal belief in plural marriage as the path to the highest kingdom of heaven.

But, as the survey notes, Jeffs, 51, is not on trial for polygamy, which leads to the question of whether jurors can set aside their feelings about polygamy and reach a verdict based solely on the evidence.

The questionnaire also asks potential jurors if they feel that reaching a verdict would subject them to criticism from “family, friends, business associates, your church or your church members,” and if such criticism would concern them.

The survey also asks about familiarity with the mass exodus of young, unmarried men from the FLDS communities, either by choice or force.

Jeff’s lawyers argued vigorously in pretrial motions that the accomplice to rape charges are only a pretext to persecute him for his religious beliefs. They also argued that the fact that no criminal charges have been filed against the woman’s husband, Allen Steed, throws into question whether a rape occurred at all.

Steed does not appear on the potential witness list for the state. Jeffs’ lawyers, however, have indicated they may call him in their list.

According to court documents, the unnamed victim was 14 when she heard that Jeffs’ father, who still occupied the position of FLDS leader at the time, had received a directive from God that she was to marry her 19-year-old first cousin.

In meetings with Jeffs and his father, Rulon, before the marriage, the teen said she felt she was not ready for marriage because of her age, but that Jeffs, speaking for his infirm father, insisted the marriage go forward.

One week later, the woman claims, her mother had to carry her down the aisle in a private ceremony in Nevada so Jeffs could marry them, urging them to “go forth and multiply.”

At the heart of the case are the woman’s claims that, after she was married, she told both her husband and Jeffs that she did not want to have sex. She claims that, despite her objections, Jeffs told her it was her role as a wife to do as her husband said or face eternal damnation.

The jury questionnaire also addresses the issue of consent, a crucial element in proving a rape case, and whether jurors could find that a crime occurred based solely on the lack of consent.

Under Utah law, Jeffs can be found guilty of rape as an accomplice even if he was not present during the actual incident, if the jury finds he “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” encourages or aids another to have intercourse without consent.

Jury selection continues Monday in St. George, Utah, with openings anticipated as soon as Wednesday. The trial will be streamed live on the Web at CourtTVnews.com.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 11, 2007.
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