SAN ANGELO, Texas A court hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children swept up in a raid on a West Texas polygamist sect descended into farce Thursday, with hundreds of lawyers in two packed buildings shouting objections and the judge struggling to maintain order.
The case – clearly one of the biggest, most convoluted child-custody hearings in U.S. history – presented an extraordinary spectacle: big-city lawyers in suits and mothers in 19th-century, pioneer-style dresses, all packed into a courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected by video.
At issue was an attempt by the state of Texas to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes because of evidence they were being physically and sexually abused by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group suspected of forcing underage girls into marriage with older men.
As many feared, the proceedings turned into something of a circus – and a painfully slow one.
By midafternoon only two witnesses had testified, and both only to lay the foundation for documents to be admitted. One witness, a state trooper, was cross-examined by dozens of attorneys, each of them asking the same question on behalf of a child or parent.
As the afternoon dragged on, no decisions had been made on the fate of any of the youngsters.
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther struggled to keep order as she faced 100 lawyers in her 80-year-old Tom Green County courtroom and several hundred more participating over a grainy video feed from an ornate City Hall auditorium two blocks away.
The hearing disintegrated quickly into a barrage of shouted objections and attempts to file motions, with lawyers for the children objecting to objections made by the parents’ attorneys. When the judge sustained an objection to the prolonged questioning the state trooper, the lawyers cheered.
Upon another objection about the proper admission of medical records of the children, the judge threw up her hands.
“I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, ‘Yes, Judge’?” she said.
In both buildings, the hundreds of lawyers stood and responded in unison: “Yes, Judge.”
But she added to the chaos as well.
Walther refused to put medical records and other evidence in electronic form, which could be e-mailed among the lawyers, because it contained personal information. A courier had to run from the courthouse to the auditorium delivering one document at a time.
“We’re going to handle this the best we can, one client at a time,” Walther said.
Little evidence had been admitted by midafternoon. The first attempt to admit evidence resulted in an hourlong recess while all the lawyers examined it. The rest of the morning was spent in arguments about whether to admit the medical records of three girls, two 17-year-olds and one 18-year-old.
Department of Public Safety Sgt. Danny Crawford testified to DPS’s discovery of a church bishop’s records taken from a safe at the ranch that listed about 38 families, some of them polygamous and some that included wives 16 or 17 years old. But under repeated cross-examination, Crawford acknowledged the records contained no evidence of sexual abuse.
State officials asked the judge for permission to conduct genetic testing on the children and adults because of difficulty sorting out the sect’s tangled family relationships and matching youngsters with their parents. The judge did not immediately rule.
Amid the shouting and chaos among the lawyers, who came from around Texas to represent the children and parents free of charge, dozens of mothers sat timidly in their long cotton dresses, long underwear even in the spring heat, and braided upswept hair.
In the satellite courtroom, about 175 people strained to see and hear a large projector set up on the auditorium’s stage. But the feed was blurry and barely audible.
“I’m not in a position to advocate for anything,” complained Susan Hays, the appointed attorney for a 2-year-old sect member.
Outside, where TV satellite trucks lined the street in front of the courthouse’s columned facade, a man who said he was an FLDS father waved a photo of himself surrounded by his four children, ranging from a baby to a child of about 9.
“Look, look, look,” the father said. “These children are all smiling, we’re happy.”
Walther signed an emergency order nearly two weeks ago giving the state custody of the children after a 16-year-old girl called an abuse hot line claiming her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her. The girl has yet to be identified.
Authorities raided their compound April 3 in the nearby town of Eldorado – a 1,700-acre ranch with a blindingly white limestone temple and log cabin-style houses – and began collecting documents and disk drives that might provide evidence of underage girls being married to adults.
The children, who are being kept in a domed coliseum in San Angelo, range in age from 6 months to 17 years. Roughly 100 of them are under 4.
FLDS members deny children were abused and say the state is persecuting them for their faith.
The judge must weigh the allegations of abuse and also decide whether it is in the children’s best interest to be placed into mainstream society after they have been told all their lives that the outside world is hostile and immoral.
If the judge gives the state permanent custody of the children, the Texas child services agency will face the enormous task of finding suitable homes. It will also have to decipher brother-sister relationships so that it can try to preserve them.
Over the past two weeks, the agency has relied on volunteers to help feed the children, do their laundry and provide crafts and games for them.
Gov. Rick Perry would not say how much the case is costing the state, but said: “Does the state of Texas have the resources? Absolutely we do.”
The sect came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church’s traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line. Its prophet and spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is in prison for forcing an underage girl into marriage in Utah.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Dobner in San Angelo, Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, and Linda Stewart Ball in Grapevine, Texas, contributed to this report.