Polygamists Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler may get separate trials

Move would drive up cost and slow progress of polygamy case

VANCOUVER — The bitter rivalry between two religious leaders in B.C. charged last week with polygamy could lead to two separate trials, increasing costs and prolonging a process that is already expected to stretch over a number of years.

The charges against Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler raise the same constitutional issues about religious freedom, but the “factual issues” related to the polygamy charge against Mr. Blackmore are not the same as those against Mr. Oler, prosecutor Terry Robertson said in his first public comments since the historic charges were announced.

Mr. Robertson would prefer to have both men on trial at the same time. But Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler have the option to ask for separate trials, Mr. Robertson said in an interview.

The trial judge would decide how the case would proceed. “It would certainly add to the cost,” he added.

Mr. Blackmore, 52, and Mr. Oler, 44, were charged with polygamy last week after 20 years of public debate. Mr. Blackmore, who describes himself as a fundamentalist Mormon, has said he believes the charge violates his right to freedom of religion guaranteed under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom. He has said his religion advocates polygamy as an article of faith.

The case marks the first time that a Canadian faces a polygamy charge since the Charter was adopted in 1982. Legal observers anticipate the case will be resolved in the Supreme Court of Canada, after decisions are made at the B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeals.

Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler live in the same rural community of about 1,000 people in southeastern B.C. However, they have not spoken to each other for more than six years. The community known as Bountiful split in 2002 after the death of Rulon Jeffs, the former leader of the U.S.-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Mr. Jeffs’ son Warren declared himself to be the new prophet of the church. However, Mr. Blackmore, who had been recognized as the Canadian bishop of the church since 1984, challenged Warren Jeffs’ leadership.

Mr. Jeffs tried to undermine Mr. Blackmore’s authority by appointing Mr. Oler as his representative in Canada and ordering his supporters to ostracize those who continued to accept Mr. Blackmore as the Canadian leader. However, about half of the church members in Bountiful stuck with Mr. Blackmore; the rest recognized the new leadership.

Linda Price, co-chair of an anti-polygamist group called Altering Destiny Through Education, said in an interview she has heard numerous stories about the divisions in the community. The group of about 12 people from Creston, a city of 10,000 a few kilometres from Bountiful, helps women who leave the polygamous church.

Animosity between rival groups in Bountiful has split families, Ms. Price said. “You could be living next door to your sister – she on one side and you on the other – and you do not talk.”

It’s not yet clear whether the rivalry between Mr. Oler and Mr. Blackmore will spill over into the court case. Mr. Blackmore declined last week to respond to questions from reporters. Mr. Oler has not been available for an interview. The men are to make their first appearance in court on Jan. 21.

Mr. Robertson said another factor that will affect the length of the legal proceedings is whether Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler decide to move straight to the constitutional issues or to defend themselves strenuously against the charge of polygamy. “Of course I have no idea what their tactic will be,” he said.

The two men may have different approaches. Although Mr. Blackmore has repeatedly stated publicly that he has married several young brides, Mr. Oler has not made any public statements about his marriages. The prosecution alleges Mr. Blackmore has 19 wives and Mr. Oler, two.

Mr. Robertson expects a trial could begin this fall in Cranbrook “if things went smoothly.” He anticipated the constitutional arguments in court would take three weeks to a month. Additional time would be required if the prosecution were required to prove polygamy.

The prosecution is currently in the process of preparing documents to disclose to defence lawyers. Mr. Robertson said he anticipates disclosing about 150 statements from potential witnesses.

– Source: Religious rivals may get separate trials, Robert Matas, The Globe and Mail (Canada), Jan. 12, 2009
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 13, 2009.
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