Jury convicts Raymond Jessop
ELDORADO, Tex. — One of the leaders of a polygamist sect was convicted Thursday night of sexually assaulting an under-age girl whom the church elders had assigned to him as one of his nine wives.
A jury of seven men and five women deliberated 2 hours 20 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty in the first trial of a dozen members of the Yearning for Zion Ranch just outside this rural hamlet in West Texas.
The defendant, Raymond M. Jessop, 38, seemed unperturbed as Judge Barbara Walther of State District Court read the verdict. Mr. Jessop was immediately handcuffed and taken into custody by the Schleicher County sheriff. He smiled and nodded to several other men in his religious group, who sat grave-faced as he was led away.
Mr. Jessop will be sentenced after a second hearing before the jury on Monday. He faces penalties ranging from 2 years’ probation to 20 years in prison.
His lawyer, Mark Stevens, declined to say if he would appeal, though the defense had argued in hearings before trial that the state illegally seized the church documents that were crucial to the case during a raid on the ranch in April 2008.
Mr. Jessop is one of the most prominent members of a breakaway sect that has at least four other communities in Arizona and Utah. He is close to Warren S. Jeffs, the self-styled prophet and leader of the sect.
Mr. Jeffs has been convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape, a charge related to his role in ordering the “spiritual marriage” of an under-age girl to one of his followers. He is in jail in Arizona awaiting trial on similar charges and has been charged in Texas with sexual assault and bigamy.
The jury will decide on a sentence after hearing additional witness testimony on Monday. Jessop’s attorneys will likely push for probation, something they asked jurors about during the selection process.
The grand jury indicted Jessop last summer based on evidence gathered during an April 2008 investigation at the Yearning For Zion Ranch, located about three miles from the courthouse. The ranch is home to FLDS members.
The state’s investigation was triggered by a call now acknowledged as a hoax but Walther ruled in September that evidence was taken legally from the ranch.
The jurors, selected from a pool of 300 county residents, heard a week’s worth of testimony.
The state used birth records, a marriage certificate and FLDS church records to show Jessop, already married, took the girl as a spiritual wife in 2004 when she was 16.
She conceived a child several months later and gave birth to a daughter in August 2005. DNA experts testified there was virtually no doubt that Jessop is the child’s father.
Prosecutor Eric Nichols told jurors Thursday in his closing argument that the best evidence that Jessop was guilty of sexual assault is that child, whose face was projected on a screen during his remarks.
Jessop allegedly has nine wives. He also faces a bigamy charge, but that case is to be tried later.
The girl in the assault case, now 21, was previously in a spiritual marriage with Jessop’s brother before being “reassigned” to Jessop when she was 15, according to documents seized at the ranch. She became pregnant at age 16.
Generally, under Texas law, no one under 17 can consent to sex with adult.
The jury was told Jessop was legally married to another woman before entering the spiritual marriage, but only as proof Jessop could not have been legally married to the teen.
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