SAN ANGELO, Texas — Prosecutors rested their case against polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs on Wednesday, after playing an audiotape of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl he took as a "spiritual wife."
Jeffs, 55, is ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church's 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.
He is accused of assaulting two girls, one age 12, one 15. If convicted, Jeffs faces a maximum sentence of 119 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors called 22 witnesses over five days, but neither of the alleged victims — nor any active member of Jeffs' church — participated in the case.
On Tuesday, prosecutors played two tapes of Jeffs instructing the older girl, as well as several other women, on how to please him sexually — and thus please God. Forensic experts have testified that DNA shows Jeffs fathered a child with the 15-year-old in October 2005.
The recordings were seized by police following an April 2008 raid on Yearning For Zion, a church compound in remote Eldorado, Texas, about 45 miles south of San Angelo. More than 400 children were placed into protective custody amid allegations that girls were being forced into polygamist marriages.
The anonymous call for help that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax, and the children were returned to their families, but images of FLDS women wearing frontier-style dresses and hairdos out of the 19th century had made headlines nationwide.
Nick Hanna, a Texas Ranger involved in the 2008 raid, said Wednesday's recording was made on Aug. 7, 2006, at the compound and held on a thumb drive recovered when Jeffs was arrested after a traffic stop along a Nevada highway in August 2006. An electronic copy was also found at Yearning For Zion.
Played in court, it was difficult to decipher, but Jeffs' and a female voice are heard. He says, "I perform this service in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen," then mentions the alleged victim by name. When she says something, he responds, "don't talk while praying." Several minutes of heavy breathing followed.
The jury wore headphones to better hear the recording and also followed a transcript. One female juror covered her face with her hand as she listened.
Jeffs fired his lawyers last week and has been representing himself. Speaking in deliberate tones and relying on antiquated terminology, the tall and lanky defendant has objected to the proceedings repeatedly, arguing that his constitutional right to religious freedom was violated.
District Judge Barbara Walther has overruled him every time.
Jeffs objected before the latest recording was played, saying, "the continued insinuation of being a court and jury, and seeking to assume a certain point of conduct is followed without understanding. There cannot be insinuation of anything."
When Walther overruled him, Jeffs voiced one more half-hearted protest but was cut off. He remained seated and silent as the tape played for more than 10 minutes.
Authorities also seized Jeffs' personal journals from Yearning For Zion. In documenting what took place the night the recording was made, Jeffs wrote that the girl "experienced a heavenly session with us and obtained a greater testimony." He said he was directing another of his wives to take the recording of his "training" with the girl to a variety of FLDS settlements so others could learn from it — helping to explain why it was in the Escalade when he was arrested.1 comment on this story
In another written excerpt, Jeffs says "though 12 years old, she has advanced quickly and got close. And she is being prepared to be a strength in the heavenly sessions." Hanna testified previously that "getting close" is how Jeffs refers to having sex.
A birth certificate recovered from the ranch indicated the girl from the recording had turned 12 just 33 days before it was made. Prosecutors showed an FLDS record indicating she was married to Jeffs in July 2006 and jurors saw photos of the couple deep kissing.
After the prosecution rested, Walther called a two-hour recess, then ordered Jeffs to begin presenting his defense. He isn't expected to call any witnesses, however, and the judge said that if he fails to do so she will proceed directly to closing arguments.
Jeffs tried unsuccessfully three times to have the judge removed from the case, his last motion quoting God as saying she will suffer a crippling sickness that will soon kill her. Without the jury present Friday, Jeffs read a statement he claimed was from God promising that the heavens would bring sickness and death to all involved if his trial wasn't stopped.