Will a new generation of committed believers cling to him as a martyr whose sacrifices preserve their place in heaven?
On Tuesday, a jury convicted the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 religious marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin.
Washington County prosecutors said Jeffs, 51, used his authority to convince the girl that refusing the union was risking her salvation and that submission to her husband, “mind, body and soul,” was her duty.
Fresh off the courtroom victory, prosecutors charged the cousin, Allen Steed, now 26, with rape Wednesday.
On Nov. 20, Jeffs could be sent to prison for life. Meanwhile, Arizona authorities and federal prosecutors have charges pending against him.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said the verdict is a warning to older men who force girls into marriage. He also called it a victory for victims afraid to speak out.
“Religion is not an excuse for abuse,” he said.
But polygamy expert and University of Utah professor Martha Bradley doesn’t believe the conviction will change polygamous societies like Shurtleff and others predict.
“It’s almost as if he’s the guardian of this way of life, and he’s playing a role that other prophets and other leaders have,” Bradley said of Jeffs.
FLDS members revere the head of their church as a prophet who communicates directly with God and holds the keys to their salvation. A central tenet of the faith is that polygamy will bring exaltation in heaven, although it was not an issue at trial.
Jeffs has led the church since 2002, taking over from his father, Rulon. A dozen or more followers attended the trial each day, standing in respect whenever Jeffs entered the courtroom.
Former FLDS member Flora Jessop said the verdict at least sends a message to polygamists that someone is watching.
“It takes away that barrier or non-accountability that polygamists have had for 50 years,” said Jessop, who lives in Phoenix and founded the Child Protection Project to help victims of abuse.
“For young girls it actually plants a seed of hope that will eventually override fear because someone was actually prosecuted,” she said.
Of all the polygamous sects in Utah and the mountain West, none is more embattled than the FLDS, said Mike Quinn, historian and former Brigham Young University professor.
In 1944 and 1953, raids on the FLDS enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. — known then as Short Creek — sent dozens of men and women to prison and put some children in foster care. The imprisoned were seen as heroes willing to suffer for the faith.
Jeffs will be viewed as a new martyr, Quinn said, and his prosecution could serve to drive FLDS families and others who practice plural marriage deeper into the shadows.
Bradley believes it was necessary to hold someone accountable for marriages that result in the abuse of young girls but adds that Jeffs is not the only accomplice.
“It’s not that Warren Jeffs is responsible for every marriage. It’s that the power is located in his person,” she said, referring to his role as prophet.
“This young woman was poorly prepared and unready for the mature experiences of marriage, and the whole community brought her to that moment,” Bradley said.
Quinn said the prosecution highlights a culture war — “a very precise culture war.”
“It’s one where basically everyone involved on all sides are united in feeling an opposition to this practice of plural marriage,” he said. “And this small minority of people are perceived as this huge threat.”
Some experts say Jeffs will remain the prophet for most of the very faithful, and polygamy will continue as a way of life.
“These kind of crises have happened many times in the past,” historian B. Carmen Hardy said. “The idea survives and is very much alive whether Warren Jeffs is in charge or someone else.”