SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed the 2007 rape conviction of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs in a decision that both prosecutors and defense attorneys say would make retrying the case difficult.
The court ordered a new trial for Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church who had been convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the "spiritual wedding" of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
In its unanimous decision to overturn the conviction, the court left the future of the case in jeopardy, attorneys said.
The state has not decided whether to retry the case, said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, but in light of the court's ruling it would be difficult to get a conviction under the prosecution's original contention that Jeffs was an accomplice to rape.
"We still believe in the theory," said Shurtleff. But the ruling "does leave us wondering how we go forward with the current law."
Elissa Wall, who testified she was forced to marry her cousin, Allen Steed, said she would support prosecutors in whatever decision they make. But she said she would be willing to testify again in court.
"Wrongs have been done and justice has not been served," Wall said. "I want to see justice served. I want to see little girls like myself at 14 years old protected."
Should prosecutors decide not to retry the case, Wall said she would support the decision.
"If nothing else, Warren Jeffs was off the street for three years," she said.
Jeffs' attorney, Walter Bugden, said his client should never have been charged under a legal theory he called "mixed and matched." He accused prosecutors of "pushing the law beyond what was reasonable" in an effort to prosecute an unpopular religious leader.
"For years, there's been an attack on the FLDS Church," Bugden said. "Utah is very invested in persecuting and prosecuting Warren Jeffs. That's not going to change overnight."
During the 2007 trial, Wall, who is now an adult, testified that while she raised concerns before and after the union, Jeffs counseled her to give herself "mind, body and soul" to her husband and to "obey him without question."
The Supreme Court reversed the case on the grounds that a jury instruction erroneously focused the jury on Jeffs' relationship with Wall rather than Steed's relationship with the girl. The trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury that Jeffs could not be found guilty as an accomplice to rape unless Jeffs specifically intended for Steed to have non-consensual sex with Wall.
"I know from the teachings of our community, the purpose of marriage is to have children and to have children you have to have sex," Wall told reporters Tuesday. "I was married against my will. I contested this marriage very heavily. … It was forced on me to go forward."
If the state chooses to retry Jeffs, Bugden said he doubts prosecutors could get another conviction.
Jeffs remained in the Utah State Prison Tuesday, but how long he might stay there is unclear.
The parties in the appeal have 14 days to file a petition for another hearing with the Utah Supreme Court. If such a petition is not filed, the case would be sent to the trial court within 30 days and the lower court would have 30 days after receipt of the record to schedule a hearing.
Officials from the Washington County Attorney's Office were reviewing the court's ruling Tuesday and said there was no timeline for a decision on where to take the case next.
"We'll consult the victim and then go on to make a decision on how to best proceed from there in the best interest of justice," said senior deputy Washington County attorney Brian Filter. "It's going to take some time for us to do that, frankly."
If Jeffs is transferred from the prison to the Washington County Jail, Bugden said he will ask for a bail hearing.
Texas officials, meanwhile, canceled a detainer hearing set for Tuesday that would have started the process to bring Jeffs to Texas, where he was charged with bigamy and sexual assault of a child in the months after the 2008 raid of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado.
The hearing was canceled because the state was requesting temporary custody of someone who is "serving a term of imprisonment," a court spokeswoman said, and the paperwork was no longer applicable after Jeffs' conviction was overturned.
Authorities in Texas, however, are still "working with the Texas Governor's Office and Utah authorities to bring Warren Jeffs to Texas to stand trial," Texas attorney general spokesman Jerry Strickland said in an e-mail.
Shurtleff said his immediate concern following the ruling was to protect young girls in closed or polygamous societies from being forced into unwanted marriages with older men and having sex with them.108 comments on this story
"My fear is this will resolve the fanatical belief of the FLDS," said Wall. "This will resolve the belief that Warren is a godlike man, and that is painful for me."
In June, Arizona prosecutors dismissed four charges of sexual misconduct with a minor against Jeffs. The charges stemmed from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and older male relatives. Prosecutors dropped the charges when two alleged victims no longer wanted to proceed with the prosecution.