ST. GEORGE — Attorneys for jailed polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs are deferring to the “court’s discretion” when it comes to releasing documents sealed in his bid for a new trial.
Jeffs, 52, was convicted in September of two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in conducting a 200 arranged marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He is serving two consecutive terms of five years to life in the Utah State Prison. A hearing to consider a new trial is scheduled March 6 at 9 a.m. in St. George.
Salt Lake City Attorney Jeffrey Hunt, who represents a media coalition including the Deseret Morning News, previously submitted an objection to the sealed filings and asked 5th District Judge James Shumate to open the documents and prohibit Jeffs from filing anything else under seal.
In a reply filed Thursday, Las Vegas attorney Richard Wright, who represented Jeffs at trial along with Salt Lake City attorneys Wally Bugden and Tara Isaacson, said the sealed memorandum discussed a matter the court had earlier deemed confidential.
The sealed memorandum in support of the new trial discussed a matter that Shumate, on his own accord, decided should remain confidential, Wright wrote.
“As such, defense counsel was not at liberty to disclose the memorandum to the public or media intervenor. In deference to the court’s determination, the memorandum was filed under seal,” Wright continued.
In spite of the judge’s earlier decision, Wright said Jeffs “asserts no privacy interest in the confidential matters” discussed in the memorandum and “defers to this court’s discretion” as to whether it should be disclosed in its entirety or in part to the public.
Hunt notes in his reply that since Jeffs does not assert any right to privacy or fair trial interests, Shumate should release the documents in question.
“The public is entitled to know the specific grounds upon which the defendant asserts he is entitled to a new trial,” Hunt writes. “Without access to defendant’s legal memorandum, as well as the state’s opposition and all related filings, the public and the news media are left in the dark about the basis of defendant’s motion, the state’s response, the record upon which the court will rule, and the reasons supporting its ruling.”
The First Amendment right of access to court records and proceedings “exists precisely to safeguard the public’s ability to obtain such information and to observe the work of the court,” Hunt continues in asking Shumate to grant his request to provide access to any filings related to the case.
In a two-page document filed Dec. 4, defense attorneys argued that “errors and improprieties” occurred that substantially affected Jeffs’ right to a fair trial. The defense team also objected to portions of the jury instructions allowed by Shumate. A memorandum supporting those claims was filed under seal that same day.
A Washington County jury, selected from a pool of nearly 300 potential jurors, found Jeffs guilty following several days of testimony from current and former members of Jeffs’ polygamist sect.
One juror was dismissed after the jury reported it was deadlocked on one of the counts. Another juror told Shumate the dismissed juror admitted she hadn’t disclosed a sexual abuse experience during the jury selection process. The new jury returned a guilty verdict on both counts less than three hours after an alternate juror began deliberating with the group.