The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs’ conviction on two counts of rape as an accomplice and sent the case back for a new trial, saying there were “serious errors” in instructions given to the jury that deprived Jeffs of a fair hearing.
The justices unanimously ruled 5th District Judge James Shumate erred when he rejected a defense request to instruct jurors that in order to convict, they must find that in performing a marriage Jeffs knew unwanted sex would take place and intended for a rape to occur.
In its opinion, the high court acknowledged the controversy surrounding the case.
“We regret the effect our opinion today may have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain,” wrote Justice Jill Parrish for the court. “However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case, in order to protect the constitutional principles on which our legal system is based. We must guarantee justice, not just for this defendant, but for all who may be accused of a crime and subjected to the State’s power to deprive them of life, liberty, or property hereafter.”
Jeffs is the ecclesiastical leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect has about 10,000 members, mostly located in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia.
Jeffs was convicted in September 2007 on two counts of being an accomplice to rape for a marriage he conducted between Allen G. Steed and Elissa Wall, then 14. Wall testified during Jeffs’ trial that she objected to the union and, initially, to having sex with her husband but Jeffs ignored her requests to be let out of the marriage.
Attorneys Walter F. Bugden Jr., Tara Isaacson and Richard Wright filed the appeal on Jeffs’ behalf in December 2008.
Nancy Volmer, court spokeswoman said the state could file a petition for a re-hearing with the Utah Supreme Court, which would then grant or deny the petition. If a petition for re-hearing is not filed, the Supreme Court will send the case file back to the trial court within 30 days. The 5th District Court would then have 30 days to set schedule a hearing.
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