The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the rape-as-an-accomplice conviction of Warren Jeffs, the prophet and leader of a polygamist sect based on the Arizona-Utah border, leaving his fate in the legal system uncertain.
In a unanimous decision, justices found that jurors in the case were given improper instructions by Washington County Judge James Shumate before reaching their verdict that Jeffs contributed to the 2001 sexual assault of teenage victim Elissa Wall, then 14, by directing her marriage to an adult cousin.
Jeffs, 54, once was listed among the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives and faced criminal prosecutions related to child rapes in three states.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
Because Mohave County prosecutors dismissed the Arizona charges against Jeffs in June, the Supreme Court decision in Utah could mean the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints faces only remaining criminal charges in Texas.
Brian Filter, senior deputy in the Washington County Attorney’s Office, said no determination has been made on whether Jeffs will be retried.
“We’ve just gotten the opinion. It’s lengthy and obviously very complicated,” Filter said. “From the beginning, we’ve sought justice in this case, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
The ruling stunned former FLDS Church member Flora Jessop of Phoenix, who wept over the phone as she denounced the court’s findings: “I think the Supreme Court of Utah just raped Elissa Wall, and I wonder who’s going to prosecute that case,” said Jessop, who says she was abused before she fled the sect at age 16. “Anybody with kids should move out of Utah and Arizona because there’s not justice here. It’s a betrayal of all of us – every child victim. . . . It just sickens me.”
By contrast, Jeffs’ Utah attorney, Walter Bugden Jr., said it was “thrilling” to see justices uphold the rule of law by vindicating a man who has been vilified in Utah and nationwide.
The Supreme Court found that Judge Shumate incorrectly advised jurors that they could find Jeffs guilty as an accomplice to rape based on the notion that his authority and marriage ceremony led to the sexual assault, regardless of whether that was his intention.
Bugden said he believes Utah will be forced to drop charges not only because new jury instructions will make a successful prosecution almost impossible, but because of evidence developed by defense lawyers in Arizona that has undermined Wall’s credibility. “I think they’d have immeasurable problems,” Bugden said.
Michael Piccarreta, Jeffs’ Arizona lawyer, said charges in Mohave County were dismissed in part because the teen had conspired with a midwife to create false medical records of a miscarriage.
In Jeffs’ trial, Elissa Wall testified that she repeatedly told him at the time that she did not want to be married and was uncomfortable with sexual advances from her husband, Allen Steed. She said Jeffs advised her to pray and submit to her husband, learn to love him and bear his children, or risk losing her “eternal salvation.”
Wall was 21 at the time of Jeffs’ conviction in 2007. Her attorneys made her name public at the end of the trial, with her consent. She is married to someone else and has left the FLDS.
The first count of rape as an accomplice against Jeffs was alleged to have occurred shortly after Wall and Steed were married, when the two first had sex, the Utah Supreme Court opinion said. The second was alleged to have occurred after Jeffs refused to “release” Wall from her marriage and told her to “give herself to [Steed] … mind, body and soul.”
“Jeffs argues that the instruction erroneously focused the jury on Jeffs’ actions and position of special trust, rather than on Steed’s, for the purpose of determining whether Wall consented,” the opinion said.
The justices agreed, saying the jurors should have been asked to consider whether Steed was in a position of special trust and whether Steed lured or induced Wall into having sex.
Prosecutors relied on three separate portions of the law defining the circumstances under which sex is non-consensual, the opinion said. Under those portions, the victim must express a lack of consent through words or conduct, the victim must be younger than 18 years, and “the actor” must be in a position of special trust in relation to the victim.
“The state interprets the term ‘actor’ to mean the ‘defendant,’ ” the opinion said. “We conclude that the state’s interpretation is erroneous.”
“We’re thrilled,” said Jeffs’ defense attorney, Wally Bugden. “We’re overjoyed. We’re ecstatic that the Supreme Court agreed with us. … The state just had the wrong legal theory.”
Jeffs is “an unpopular religious figure in our state,” Bugden said, and the media have “had a field day portraying him as an evil, horrible, pernicious individual.” The court, he said, was able to put that aside and base its decision on the evidence and legal theories, not on emotion, and determine that the erroneous instructions led jurors to “an erroneous result.”
The defense has always maintained that marrying someone, encouraging them to make their marriage work and “be fruitful and multiply … that is not the same thing as saying to a husband, ‘I’m encouraging you to rape your wife,’ ” Bugden said.
He said he had not had a chance to speak to Jeffs but planned to do so Tuesday afternoon.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Laura Dupaix told CNN affiliate KSTU that the opinion is “going to make it difficult, I think, for us to do future prosecutions in cases where some of these men in positions of power — almost complete power, like Warren Jeffs is — to prosecute them for forcing young girls into these marriages. I think that’s really the part of this opinion that is most disappointing for us.”