SAN ANGELO, Texas — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs fired his attorney Wednesday just hours after hiring him, prompting a West Texas judge to delay a trial on sexual assault charges after Jeffs said he would need more time to find a lawyer who "suits my needs."
Gerry Morris, a prominent Austin-based lawyer, told district court Judge Barbara Walther during a morning pretrial hearing that he would represent Jeffs as long as a trial on sexual assault charges set to begin Jan. 21 was pushed back to give him time to prepare.
But in a subsequent late-afternoon hearing, Morris said Jeffs had "discharged" him. He did not elaborate and said after the hearing that he could not comment.
Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, is accused of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and bigamy. Prosecutors say Jeffs had sex with two children, one under age 14 and the other under age 17, and re-arraigned Jeffs during the earlier hearing so that all counts of sexual assault could be heard in a single trial — with a separate trial to be held in the bigamy case.
After Morris said he would not represent Jeffs, Walther turned to the defendant and said "Mr. Jeffs, what do you propose to do?"
After a long pause, state prosecutor Eric Nichols stood up and said Jeffs was using an apparent "strategy for more time" but that he had been unwilling even to sign a waiver that would have allowed prosecutors to delay the start of his first trial.
Nichols then proposed that the trial for aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault be pushed back until Feb. 21 and that the bigamy case remain slated to start March 14.
The 55-year-old Jeffs stared into space, then addressed the court slowly and deliberately for several minutes.
"I just ask you," Jeffs said, before pausing at length, "to allow me a little more time in finding counsel that suits the needs I have, as I will proceed hastily with help from those who understand my needs."
Jeffs continued that he was "not attempting to hinder, in any way, the proceedings, only requesting an additional opportunity to accomplish what is needed in determining representation more suitable."
He added: "I request the court that I not be in a position of using representation not able to fully defend or understand my needs . . . I feel like the hastening of this would be detrimental to my defense."
Walther granted Nichols' motion and appointed San Angelo attorney Fred Brigman to serve as Jeffs' standby counsel. Nichols said the state would proceed with discovery and provide Brigman access to evidence. Another pretrial hearing is set for Jan. 31.
The charges stem from the 2008 raid of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, a remote community south of San Angelo in this pecan-growing region. Authorities seized 439 children and placed them in state custody on suspicion that the girls were being sexually abused and the boys were being raised to be sexual predators.
Most of the children were eventually returned to their families, but seven men in the sect who see Jeffs as their spiritual leader were charged and eventually convicted of child sexual assault and abuse.
Jeffs was convicted in Utah in a case stemming from the marriage of an underage girl to her cousin, but that was overturned in 2007 due to improper jury instructions.
During four previous pretrial hearings last month, Jeffs was advised by an attorney who represented him in cases in Utah and Arizona but who is not licensed in Texas. Jeffs, who is being held without bond, said repeatedly that he had been unable to locate in-state counsel.
Morris represented Barbara Bush, one of then-President George W. Bush's daughters, when she pleaded no contest to an underage drinking count in 2001. He also represented a defendant in a 1991 trial of 11 Branch Davidians accused of ambushing and murdering federal firearms agents.
The Fundamentalist LDS Church is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church and believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven. Mormons denounced the practice in 1890.