The key witness in the trial of the American polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs has testified that she had been indoctrinated to believe she must obey church leaders to preserve her place in heaven. “We were to follow them obediently as though we were led by a hair,” she told the court.
Jeffs is being tried in St George, Utah, on charges of rape as an accomplice. If convicted he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Prosecutors allege that Jeffs knew that the girl, then aged 14, objected to her 2001 marriage to her 19-year-old cousin. But when she tried to end the marriage Jeffs told her that she would forfeit her “chance at the afterlife” should she disobey him.
The trial of the 51-year-old leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) promises to shed light on the workings of the 10,000-strong breakaway Mormon group. The group practices polygamy, which is illegal; the Mormon church disavowed the practice in 1890. The FLDS, however, maintains that a man must have three wives to reach the highest realms of heaven.
Mr Jeffs assumed the role of “prophet” or leader of the sect in 2002, succeeding his father. He was on the run, and on the FBI’s most wanted list, before being arrested in Las Vegas in 2006. The woman told the court that Mr Jeffs “was always an authority figure in my life. The prophet was as God to us. He was God on earth and his counsellors were pretty much the same, so they had jurisdiction over us.”
She described the FLDS school she attended, Alta Academy, where Mr Jeffs taught classes instructing girls how to prepare for marriage. Pupils were taught that dating should be determined by the group’s officials, and that girls and boys were to treat each other “as though they were snakes”, she said. “There was nothing permitted romantically.”
Prosecutors played a recording of a 1997 lesson in which Mr Jeffs said that obedience was key to good marriage. “Give yourself to him, that means full obedience to righteous principles. No halfway, no holding back,” he said on the tape.
In its opening statement, the defence attorney Tara Isaacson argued that the girl may not have liked being married to her cousin, but “being unhappy is different from being raped”.
“What did Warren Jeffs have to do with what was going on in her bedroom?” asked Ms Isaacson. “Did he even know she was being forced to have sex against her will?”
Ms Isaacson also noted that the girl had first bought a civil suit against Mr Jeffs before going to authorities. The civil case is pending; the criminal case continues.