FLDS defendant’s argument rejected
Attorneys moved closer to seating a jury in the first criminal case resulting from the state’s 2008 raid on a polygamist sect’s ranch after narrowing a jury pool to 34 on Tuesday.
At least two more jurors are expected to be interviewed today before prosecutors and attorneys for Raymond Merril Jessop begin their final eliminations or strikes, according to a courtroom discussion after 76 jurors had been interviewed over two days. Fourteen jurors are needed, 12 plus two alternates, before opening statements can begin.
State District Judge Barbara Walther heard Jessop’s defense team make another go at keeping Deputy Attorney General Eric Nichols and his team from discussing polygamy or plural marriages, common within the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, during the child sexual assault trial.
“How is it relevant?” Jessop’s attorney Mark Stevens asked Walther. “It is highly prejudicial.”
Nichols countered that the state the victim — a 16-year-old girl in 2005 — was living in is relevant and he made no promise not to introduce the fact that the victim was one of eight illegal marriages Jessop had.
“It is proof to the element of the crime,” Nichols said.
The judge refused to bar the mention of plural marriage or polygamy.
Jessop, 38, is the first of 12 FLDS men to be tried on a variety of sexual assault and bigamy charges as a result of the April 3-5 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a 1,700 acre spread about 5 miles northeast of Eldorado. He will be tried later on a separate bigamy charge.
FLDS: Sect patriarch let into court
A leader in the polygamist sect with 12 men facing criminal charges in Schleicher County said he doesn’t necessarily think the first trial should set the tone or decide key issues for the other trials.
“Each trial and each circumstance has to stand on its own issues and its own set of facts,” Willie Jessop, spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said Tuesday afternoon on the Schleicher County Courthouse lawn.
Willie Jessop, an FLDS patriarch who often acts as the sect’s spokesman, said he came from his home in Hildale, Utah, at the request of defendant Raymond Merril Jessop, who is being tried on a charge of child sexual assault in connection with allegations that he married an underage girl.
It appeared that approximately 17 sect members were among those who answered the summons for jury duty Monday, including seven who said they were related by blood to the 38-year-old defendant.
Professor Arnold Loewy, a Texas Tech University law professor, said dismissing the FLDS members out of hand from the pool of prospective jurors might raise questions of religious freedom and of whether Raymond Jessop is getting a fair trial from a jury of his peers, but prosecutor Eric Nichols will likely strive to purge the FLDS sect members from the jury pool.
Raising the stakes for the defense, lead defense attorney Mark Stevens indicated in court documents that if his client were found guilty, the jury rather than the judge should decide his punishment.
If convicted, Raymond Jessop could receive two to 20 years in prison.