Legal battle brewing over polygamous leader’s jailhouse statements

A jailhouse conversation in which Warren S. Jeffs purportedly says he finagled his way to leadership of a polygamous sect is recounted in a new book by a former follower – which may boost efforts to get a Utah judge to release the information.

Fifth District Judge James L. Shumate has set a Nov. 6 hearing to consider requests by a private investigator and media outlets to release jailhouse statements and any other evidence sealed in the case.

Shumate sealed Jeffs’ jailhouse statements in July after determining they were of “such a nature that to disseminate them in any way, shape or form” would impair Jeffs’ right to a fair trial.

At the July hearing, Shumate also said public disclosure of the statements would place “such a cloud” over Jeffs’ upcoming trial that he “could not feel good about picking a jury in the state of Utah.”

Shumate said he would revisit his decision if the statements became an issue during the trial and evidence overpowered their “prejudicial impact.”

The jailhouse conversations were not raised during the trial, however.

On Sept. 25, a St. George jury convicted Jeffs on two counts of being of an accomplice to rape related to an arranged marriage he conducted in 2001 between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs will be sentenced on the two felony charges, which are punishable by five years to life in prison, on Nov. 20.

Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake media attorney, said that with the trial over the fairness issue is moot. Hunt is representing a media coalition that has sought access to the jailhouse conversations and other records in the Jeffs case.

“If the information is already in the public domain, there is no longer any interest in concealing the court records from public view,” Hunt said.

Carolyn Jessop describes one jailhouse conversation in her book “Escape,” released this week. Jessop left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in April 2003. She was a plural wife of Merril Jessop, a high-ranking member of the FLDS faith who oversees its YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.

In her final chapter, titled “End Game,” Jessop writes: “It’s hard to know what to believe about Warren Jeffs. He apparently confessed to his brother Nephi Jeffs that he was the most evil of men and had worked his way up through the FLDS only because he wanted power.

“Jeffs said he hadn’t upheld the priesthood since he was twenty. He asked his brother to convey his ‘confession’ to the community. Then he changed his mind and told him not to.”

Nephi Jeffs has visited his older brother regularly at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane. Jail officials routinely videorecord inmates’ visits.

Asked about her decision to include the material, Jessop said: “Did I put that in the book? Oh dear.”

Jessop said she used it when “everybody was talking about it and it was supposed to come out in [Jeffs’ rape as an accomplice trial] and then the judge withheld it and shut it out.”

Jessop said she had two sources for the material, including “sources that weren’t supposed to be talking.” The other source was one of Warren Jeffs’ brothers, who had been told about the conversation by Nephi Jeffs, she said.

“He wasn’t under any court order to not be talking,” Jessop said.

Investigator Sam Brower said he wants the statements because they may show that Jeffs is a “fraud,” which would help other cases pending against the sect leader. Brower works for attorneys Roger and Greg Hoole.

The two Salt Lake City attorneys represent Elissa Wall, the accuser in Jeffs’ rape trial, and another woman who has brought similar allegations against Jeffs in Arizona. Wall’s case also has been filed in Arizona. Both those cases are still pending.

Wall also filed a civil lawsuit against Jeffs, the FLDS church and the United Effort Plan Trust, a communal property trust once run by the faith. The trust is now under a Utah court’s oversight. Wall is seeking a multi-million dollar settlement from the trust.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday October 20, 2007.
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