'Modern-Day Lynching' of a Prophet

Jury selection begins in Texas case for Warren Jeffs

Warren Jeffs
Warren Jeffs

Jury selection in the trial of Warren Jeffs, the polygamist prophet of the Mormon breakaway sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, began July 25 in San Angelo, Texas. Jeffs, 55, is charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child (which could net him a life sentence) and sexual assault of a child (punishable by up to 20 years) connected to his alleged "spiritual" marriage to two underage girls. Jeffs has also been charged with bigamy, which has been set for a separate trial in the fall.

Much of the evidence against Jeffs comes from the 2008 raid by Texas authorities of the FLDS' West Texas compound, the Yearning for Zion Ranch, outside Eldorado. That raid ended with more than 400 children being removed from the ranch by child protection officials; the children were later returned to their parents, however, after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state had overstepped its authority. Reportedly, Jeffs' attorneys will challenge the use of that evidence by state prosecutors. "The search, I've always believed, ranked in probably the top 10 of worst searches in U.S. history," Utah attorney Michael Piccarreta, one of Jeffs' longtime advisors, told The Salt Lake Tribune. (Piaccarreta is not representing Jeffs in the Texas case.) "What's going on in Texas is the result of modern-day lynching."

Since January, Jeffs has hired and fired several prominent Texas attorneys. If that was a strategy to try to postpone the trial, it hasn't worked. According to the Tribune, Judge Barbara Walther (whom Jeffs has twice tried to have removed from hearing his case because of her perceived bias in favor of the state) last week refused to allow the attorneys be removed from his defense.

Jeffs was tried and convicted on a rape-as-accomplice charge in Utah in 2007, in connection to his role in presiding over the spiritual marriage between an adolescent girl and her older cousin, but the Utah Supreme Court ultimately overturned the conviction after ruling that the trial court failed to properly instruct the jurors before they began deliberations. The Utah Supremes gave the state the option of retrying Jeffs; instead, the state agreed to allow Jeffs' extradition (although Jeffs fought the move) to Texas for trial on the sexual assault charges, the most serious he has faced. (For more on the FLDS in Texas, see "Meet the New Neighbors," July 29, 2005.)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Warren Jeffs, polygamy, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Yearning for Zion Ranch, Barbara Walther, FLDS

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