BIG LAKE, Texas — Extradited to Texas two years after being indicted, polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs will be facing Texas prosecutors who haven't lost a criminal case against his followers since the 2008 raid of his Yearning for Zion ranch.
In the rural courts near the YFZ ranch where Jeffs is considered a prophet, his followers have been reliably convicted by juries that barely deliberate two hours.
Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was quietly extradited to Texas this week from Utah. He remained jailed Thursday, charged with felony bigamy, aggravated sexual assault and assault.
The 2008 raid swept more than 400 children into protective custody, and left a dozen men in the church facing charges that include sexual assault and bigamy.
Seven of Jeffs' followers have been prosecuted since last year, and all were convicted. Only in one case have jurors deliberated more than two hours. The sentences have ranged from six to 75 years.
"The evidence has been clear and convincing to juries," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General's office that is prosecuting the cases against FLDS members.
Now it will be Jeffs' turn. He is scheduled for trial Jan. 24 on the aggravated sexual assault charge. Prosecutors plan to try him separately on the other charges.
Strickland said prosecutors don't see Jeffs as the marquee defendant in their case.
"Our interest in Warren Jeffs focuses on the crimes he's accused of committing, and we'll treat his cases just as we've treated the other defendants," Strickland said.
Neither Jeffs, who turns 55 today, nor his church have spoken publicly since he arrived at a San Angelo airport late Tuesday, escorted by the Texas Rangers. He is being held without bond in a jail cell to himself in Big Lake, about an hour's drive west of the Tom Green County courthouse where he was arraigned Wednesday.
Willie Jessop, an FLDS spokesman, did not return messages for comment Thursday. Jeffs told state District Judge Barbara Walther he would "need more time" to find an attorney in Texas after appearing without counsel at his arraignment.
Whoever represents him may have a difficult task ahead. Juries in Schleicher County, where the 1,700-acre YFZ ranch sits on the West Texas plains, and neighboring Tom Green County have so far been loath to spare FLDS members.
Of the cases prosecuted, juries swiftly returned convictions of sexual assault of a child in five of them. Two defendants pleaded no contest and were sentenced without trial.
The FLDS, a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven. Historically centered around the Arizona-Utah line, the sect bought a ranch near Eldorado and began building multifamily homes, a dairy and an enormous limestone temple about seven years ago.
FLDS attorneys have urged jurors in earlier cases not to be distracted by the polygamist group's prairie-style clothing, braids or religious beliefs. They've called the prosecution a persecution. And they've taken aim at the volumes of journal writings, photos and other evidence seized by authorities during the raid of the ranch.
None have swayed a verdict in their favor so far.
Ken Driggs, an Atlanta defense attorney who has written extensively about the polygamist community, said the West Texas community may still not understand the culture of the church, even two years after the raid put the area in the national spotlight.
"I'm not sure the jury pools out there know much about these individuals," Driggs said. "That may have something to do with the speed of the verdicts."
But Patrick Metze, a professor at the Texas Tech University School of Law who is familiar with the FLDS attorneys, said the jury pool in West Texas may be growing tired of the cases.
In the last trial of an FLDS member, jurors deliberated the longest and handed out a shorter sentence. Keith William Dutson Jr., 25, was convicted in November of sexual abuse of a child. Prosecutors said he was in his early twenties when he took a wife who was 16.
Jurors met for about five hours, by far the longest deliberation. His 6-year prison sentence is also the shortest punishment to an FLDS member in Texas.
Jeffs' case "won't be an easy trial for the state," Metze said.
The sect leader's attorneys in Utah had opposed his extradition, arguing that sending him to Texas before a long-running criminal case in Utah was resolved would deny him the right to a speedy trial. But the Utah Supreme Court ruled Nov. 23 that it would not block the transfer.
Jeffs had been jailed in Utah since his arrest, and eventual conviction, on two charges of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin. In July, the Utah Supreme overturned that 2007 convictions.
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