Fifth District Judge James L. Shumate will make a key decision in November as he sentences polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs: Whether he serves his sentences concurrently or consecutively.
A St. George jury convicted Jeffs of two first-degree counts of rape as an accomplice on Tuesday. Each count carries an indeterminate penalty of five years to life in prison. At the Nov. 20 hearing, Shumate theoretically could give Jeffs probation – highly unlikely given the nature of the charges and the state’s interest in prosecuting him.
Instead, Shumate will decide whether Jeffs serves his terms simultaneously or back-to-back. The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole will then take control of Jeffs’ future.
Jim Hatch, board spokesman, said inmates serving five-years-to-life sentences receive an automatic hearing after three years. At that hearing, the board will review the nature of the crime, Jeffs’ degree of responsibility, participation in prison programs and whether he has expressed contrition, Hatch said.
According to Department of Corrections data, on average first-degree felony sex offenders serve about seven years in prison.
John Perry Chaney, convicted of rape of a child for marrying his 13-year-old daughter to a 48-year-old man, has served 10 years so far on three concurrent five-years-to-life sentences. His next hearing is set for June.
Also in play: A decision by Arizona authorities on whether to prosecute sex charges against Jeffs or wait to see how his sentence plays out.
Jeffs’ fate dealt, how will sect fare?
Warren S. Jeffs may spend years, if not the rest of his life, in prison. But historians say it is unlikely to weaken his leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or lessen devotion to him.
For Jeffs’ followers, keeping the faith during a prophet’s imprisonment is a familiar and recurring test as fundamentalist Mormons – one they have always weathered while tenaciously holding on to controversial practices such as plural marriage.
“These kinds of crises have happened many times in the past,” said B. Carmen Hardy, a historian and author of Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy. “The idea survives and is very much alive whether Warren Jeffs is in charge or someone else.”
Jeffs has already served more than a year in jail with no apparent decrease in his authority or his following. There are about 6,000 FLDS members in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., with perhaps as many as 1,500 more scattered in such locales as British Columbia, Texas, South Dakota and Nevada.
While government authorities prepared for an exodus of FLDS members after Jeffs’ arrest on Aug. 28, 2006, it didn’t happen. Now, they hope his conviction – on two felony counts of rape as an accomplice – and a lengthy stint in prison will topple Jeffs.
But religious precepts, as well as past history, make that unlikely. There is no mechanism for removing a prophet from his post. Leaders incapacitated by age or disease – such as past prophets Rulon T. Jeffs, Warren’s father, and Leroy S. Johnson – continue to serve.
Johnson “delegated a lot to other people but was still considered in charge and as calling the shots” before his death in 1986 at age 98, said Ezra Draper, a former FLDS member.
Likewise, imprisonment has been only a minor impediment to leadership.
In the 1930s, fundamentalists living in Short Creek – as the twin towns were previously known – accepted John Y. Barlow as the senior authority in a council. He spent six months in prison in 1945 for engaging in polygamy. During that time, Barlow relied on other men to look after church and business affairs, according to historian Marianne Watson. Among them: Rulon T. Jeffs.
“There were several brethren who filled in,” said Watson, a fundamentalist Mormon who belongs to a different polygamous group.
But Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney and historian who focuses on fundamentalism, sees a difference between that era and today.
“They had a government system without a sole authority,” he said.
Beginning with Barlow, sect leaders began to emphasize a “one-man rule” that concentrated power in the prophet’s hands. That shift was partly responsible for a split in the 1980s that led to creation of “The Work of Jesus Christ,” a separate fundamentalist group in Centennial Park, Ariz., several miles south of the twin towns.
While no FLDS members will speak about the sect’s organizational structure, former members and historians say one exists and is similar to that used by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church publicly disavowed plural marriage in 1890 and, since then, any connection to the break-off sects.
The FLDS hierarchy is said to consist of two counselors, a high priesthood council of seven to 12 men, and several bishops – necessary because of the group’s far-flung outposts. It is this group that has kept – and will continue to keep – the FLDS group operating during Jeffs’ incarceration.
“Even if he is personally opposed to that, it is a practical necessity,” said Michael Quinn, a historian who also has written about fundamentalism. “He cannot operate the day-to-day decision-making for this widespread group.”
Wendell Nielsen, a prominent businessman, is said to be Jeffs’ first counselor; Lyle Jeffs, a brother, is described both as the group’s second counselor and the bishop in the twin towns. Jim Oler is the bishop of the FLDS community in British Columbia. One problem for Jeffs’ twin cities appointees: Most are in hiding because they are named in civil lawsuits that seek damages from the United Effort Plan Trust, a communal property trust taken over by a Utah court in 2005.
Even so, said Ben Bistline, a former sect member and author of The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, Arizona: “They are the ones still running it and they will under Warren.”
Quinn said, that given past history, it won’t be a “significant problem for the people in the community to continue to look to the council instead of to Jeffs himself.”
Marriages and “releases” – the FLDS form of divorce – are among the daily decisions that Jeffs may no longer be able to handle. The FLDS believe marriage choices are made by God through divine revelation to the prophet, who also conducts ceremonies and grants releases.
The prophet may delegate that authority on a case-by-case basis. Jeffs, for example, often performed marriages when he served as first counselor to his father – including the marriage of Elissa Wall to Allen Steed, on which Utah based its criminal case against him.
Draper is among those who say it may be easier for Jeffs to manage the faith from prison compared to circumstances that existed during his 15 months as a federal fugitive.
“I don’t know how it changes anything other than him being robbed of his freedom,” he said. “He should be really efficient at this work.”
The FLDS faithful likely will be strengthened in their view that Jeffs is a victim of religious persecution, he said.
They also may very well draw comparison to Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, who was jailed – and then killed by a mob – in 1844.
And their beliefs may be galvanized – just as they were in 1953 when Arizona authorities moved on Short Creek with the aim of wiping out polygamy forever.
Instead, 54 years later, the sect is bigger and more widespread than ever.
But Watson wonders whether, as government officials hope, a fracture in the FLDS could be in the making.
“It is hard to hold a community together when it is newly dispersed [to places such as] Texas and South Dakota,” she said. “It will be harder and harder to maintain a center. . . . It is gone too far and can’t go back to what it was. That doesn’t mean the people won’t hold the religion individually, but you won’t see the cohesiveness that existed in the past. It’s not going to ever be anything like it was.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.