Almost four years ago, the lanky, pale-skinned, wide-eyed “prophet” of a polygamist sect stepped out of a red Cadillac Escalade during a routine traffic stop just north of Las Vegas and said, “I am Warren Jeffs.”
In little time, FBI agents arrived to cuff the man who had shared a slot with Osama bin Laden on the most-wanted list that summer. With that arrest, the then 50-year-old Jeffs took his first step into a four-year legal maze that this week produced yet another surprising twist: the decision by the Utah Supreme Court to throw out the only successful conviction of the self-styled seer.
Jeffs once foretold that he would be in a long fight against dark forces — and he seems to have won a major victory in that war. He has suffered for it: his health debilitated by frequent hunger strikes, his knees cankered with sores from long sessions of prayer, according to prison officials. But the war between the prophet and the law is not over. While Utah prosecutors ponder their next move and consider whether to retry Jeffs, the state of Texas is in hot pursuit.
The ruling drew fire from Marci Hamilton, a lawyer who specializes in church-state relations and who holds the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. She has been an outspoken critic of the pace and dearth of prosecutions in polygamy cases in Arizona and Utah.
“It’s not terribly surprising” Hamilton told TIME. “Their reading of the statute strikes me as mechanical.” She notes that, although the opinion expressed sympathy for the victim, the unanimous opinion did not invite the state legislature to revisit the statute to make prosecutions in child-marriage cases easier. Hamilton says the politics of Arizona and Utah — where an estimated 10,000 members of the FLDS live and polygamy has a long, complicated history — have made prosecutions and even civil cases against the FLDS difficult.
State prosecutors in several western states have promised to pursue the FLDS in child-marriage cases, but prosecutions have been difficult given the tight-knit FLDS community, in which members are closely related by blood and tied together by business. As for federal prosecutions, they have not been forthcoming, despite lingering rumors of a federal grand jury seated somewhere in the west.
Utah’s attorney general Mark Shurtleff said he was “disappointed” in the ruling. His office will consult with prosecutors in Washington County, where Jeffs was convicted, to determine whether to ask for a rehearing on the appeal — unlikely, legal observers say — or go forward with a retrial. But the ruling may be a barrier to a retrial. “It is going to make it difficult … in cases where some of these men are in positions of power, almost [complete] power like Warren Jeffs, to prosecute them for forcing these girls into these marriages,” assistant attorney general Laura Dupaix said.
The best bet for those in pursuit of Jeffs may be the pending Eldorado charges in Texas, where he is facing trial for bigamy, sexual assault of a child and aggravated assault.
Texas prosecutors have been racking up a list of successful prosecutions against 12 FLDS members, based on evidence obtained in the Eldorado raid and DNA samples from FLDS children taken into Texas custody.
So far seven men have been found guilty of various child-abuse, bigamy and other felony charges with sentences ranging from seven to 75 years. Jeffs is alleged to have performed and blessed the marriages involved in these cases.
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