Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs convicted of child sex abuse

By Will Weissert

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 4 2011 3:39 p.m. MDT

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints carry defense materials out of the Tom Green County Courthouse that Polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs is using to defend himself in a sexual assault trial Wednesday Aug. 3, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. Jeffs gave a delayed opening statement about religious persecution Wednesday and dramatically slowed down his trial, where he is defending himself on charges of sexually abusing underage girls.

Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A Texas jury convicted polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs of child sexual assault on Thursday, in a case stemming from two young followers he took as brides in what his church calls "spiritual marriages."

The head of the Fundamentalist LDS Church stood stone-faced as the verdict was read. Jeffs, who acted as his own attorney, stood mostly mute for his closing argument, staring at the floor, for all but a few seconds of the half hour he was allotted.

At one point he mumbled, "I am at peace," and said no more. The only noise in the courtroom was the creaking of wooden benches brimming with spectators.

Jeffs, 55, had claimed his religious rights were being trampled on and that God would seek revenge if the trial continued. He now faces up to life in prison. The sentencing phase of the trial began after the verdict was announced, and Texas' attorney general said it could take three days.

Prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old. They also played audio recordings in which Jeffs was heard instructing young women on how to please him sexually.

The FLDS, which has at least 10,000 members, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism and believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. They see Jeffs as God's spokesman on earth.

Police had raided the group's remote West Texas ranch in April 2008, finding women dressed in frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century as well as seeing underage girls who were clearly pregnant. The call to an abuse hotline that spurred the raid turned out to be a hoax, and more than 400 children who had been placed in protective custody were eventually returned to their families.

But authorities brought charges against several men from the group, with Jeffs by far the highest-profile defendant.

As the sentencing phase began, prosecutors told jurors they will present evidence that Jeffs had 78 wives, in addition to his legal spouse, and that 24 of them were under the age of 17. Lead prosecutor Eric Nichols also said he would show that Jeffs either witnessed or performed hundreds of polygamist marriages, including 67 church marriages involving underage girls.

Jeffs stood up and made several incoherent objections to what was being said.

"I object to anything pertaining to a religious manner," he said at one point. "A constitutional guarantee involving things sacred must be invoked."

Prosecutors have relied heavily on information seized from the compound, which is in the town of Eldorado, 45 miles south of San Angelo, and features a four-story temple of white limestone. Much of the material was discovered in a vault at the end of a secret passageway in the temple and another vault in an annex building.

"You might have asked yourselves," Nichols told jurors during closing arguments, "a lot of people may ask, why would someone record sex? ... This individual considers himself to be the prophet. Everything he did, hour after hour, he was required to keep a record of that."

On one of the tapes played at the trial, Jeffs made a reference to "drawing close" or "being close," which authorities testified is how church members refer to sex. Two female voices said "OK."

"A good wife is trained for her husband and follows the spirit of peace," Jeffs was heard saying.

Another audio tape included Jeffs and the younger girl from a recording made in August 2006 at the Texas compound, according to testimony from Nick Hanna, a Texas Ranger involved in the 2008 raid.

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