Case Against Polygamist Goes to the Jury in Utah

ST. GEORGE, Utah, Sept. 21 — The jury in the trial of the polygamist religious leader Warren S. Jeffs began deliberations on Friday with starkly differing accounts by the prosecution and the defense not only of what the evidence showed, but of what the trial was about.

The Washington County attorney, Brock Belnap, in summing up for the prosecution, said Mr. Jeffs was on trial for deliberately or recklessly orchestrating an act of brutal violation — the rape of a 14-year-old girl who Mr. Belnap said was pressed against her will by Mr. Jeffs into a “celestial wedding” with her 19-year-old cousin.

Mr. Jeffs’s lawyer, Walter F. Bugden, told the jury of five men and three women that the prosecution had failed to prove a rape had occurred, and that there was no case.

But what drew the biggest sparks between the lawyers was the repeated accusation by Mr. Bugden that the proceedings were a smoke screen for religious persecution and the abuse of state police powers.

His assertions brought the bitter divisions over polygamy that simmer beneath much of rural Utah into the open. The mainstream Mormon church, based in Salt Lake City, rejected plural marriage in 1890, while the splinter-group faction that became Mr. Jeffs’s church carried on with the practice.

“They’re prosecuting Warren Jeffs for rape because he is the leader of a church and a religion that the state doesn’t approve of,” Mr. Bugden said. “His church, his religious belief, his religion, is what’s on trial.”

Mr. Belnap, in a final word to jurors, called Mr. Bugden’s assertion “absolutely repugnant,” and said the defense was using religion as a shield for evil.

“You cannot hurt young people in the name of religion and think you’ll escape the law,” Mr. Belnap said.

Mr. Jeffs, 51, who is hailed by his roughly 10,000 followers as a prophet, could face up to life in prison if convicted on either of two criminal counts that accuse him of acting as an accomplice to rape in his role as leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The case has drawn national attention partly because of the element of polygamy. But it is also about the tangled thicket of law that scholars say the state entered in making the argument that Mr. Jeffs was an accomplice to an event that occurred outside his presence.

“Usually the accomplice is a person who holds the victim down while the rape occurs, or verbally goads the perpetrator to act,” said Prof. Daniel S. Medwed, who teaches criminal law at the University of Utah College of Law and has followed the case. “Here it’s more of a psychological coercion theory — the state has to prove that Jeffs intended or at least knew that this 14-year-old would be coerced into sex by this 19-year-old.”

Professor Medwed said he knew of only one other instance of such a prosecution — also in Utah, in 1999, against a father who was convicted of coercing his 13-year-old daughter into an illegal marriage in a religious community. That conviction was upheld on appeal.

But the girl in Mr. Jeffs’s case, who was named Jane Doe for court proceedings, was 14 at the time of the alleged crime, old enough for consensual sex under Utah law. The jurors will thus have to conclude, if they vote to convict Mr. Jeffs, that she was old enough to decide for herself, but that she was forced into sex against her will.

The cousin of the girl, who is now 26, has not been charged. Mr. Bugden said that fact was significant — and quoted to the jury from a pretrial hearing at which the girl said she had no intention of pressing charges against the cousin, Allen Steed, because she felt that “he was a victim.”

Mr. Belnap said the issue was irrelevant to Mr. Jeffs’s culpability.

In their closing arguments, both prosecution and defense touched on the different nature and even the definition of consent within a church like the one overseen by Mr. Jeffs, whose word, including who should or should not be married, is considered the word of God.

Mr. Belnap said such authority gave Mr. Jeffs extraordinary power, but also huge responsibility — and that in pushing the girl toward a marriage she had said she did not want, Mr. Jeffs had violated her trust.

Mr. Bugden said the culture of the church — with beliefs that include the view that marriage is the highest expression of God’s will — had to be taken into account.

“The idea that all of this is laid at the feet of Warren is just not fair,” Mr. Bugden said.

John Dougherty contributed reporting.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday September 22, 2007.
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