SAN ANGELO, Texas — A Texas jury has sentenced polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs to serve life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides.
The head of the Utah-based Fundamentalist LDS Church stood quietly as the decision of the Texas jury was read Tuesday. He received the maximum sentence on both counts.
The jury deliberated less than half an hour.
Prosecutor Eric Nichols had asked the jury for a life sentence, saying the case was "a prosecution to protect people."
The 55-year-old Jeffs, who had insisted on acting as his own attorney during the earlier part of the trial, was convicted Thursday. He walked out of the sentencing phase in protest after reading a statement Friday that he claimed was from God, promising a "whirlwind of judgment" on the world if God's "humble servant" wasn't set free.
The jury deliberated the punishment of Jeffs after the convicted polygamist leader once again refused to participate in court proceedings. He wouldn't answer the judge overseeing his child sexual abuse trial when asked if he wanted to make a closing statement in the punishment phase Tuesday.
An attorney for Jeffs told state District Judge Barbara Walther that his client didn't want defense lawyers speaking on his behalf.
During the trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year-old and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old. They played other tapes in which Jeffs was heard instructing as many as a dozen of his young wives on how to please him sexually — and thus, he told them, please God.
"If the world knew what I was doing, they would hang me from the highest tree," Jeffs wrote in 2005, according to one of thousands of pages of notes seized along with the audio recordings from his Texas ranch.
Nichols referred to that in his closing.
"No, Mr. Jeffs, unlike what you wrote in your priesthood records ... we don't hang convicts anymore from the highest tree. Not even child molesters," Nichols said.
Jeffs claimed his religious rights were being violated. Representing himself after burning through seven high-powered attorneys, he routinely interrupted the proceedings and chose to stand silently in front of jurors for nearly half an hour during his closing arguments. He called just one defense witness, a church elder who read from Mormon scripture.
The FLDS Church — a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism — believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It has more than 10,000 followers who consider Jeffs to be God's spokesman on Earth.
He spent years evading arrest — crisscrossing the country as a fugitive who eventually made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list before his capture in 2006, said Nichols.
Several former members of the church have testified that Jeffs ruled the group with a heavy and abusive hand. Jeffs also allegedly excommunicated 60 church members he saw as a threat to his leadership, breaking up 300 families while stripping them of property and "reassigning" wives and children.
In an audiotape played during the sentencing phase, Jeffs was heard softly telling five young girls to "set aside all your inhibitions" as he gave them instructions on how to please him sexually. Jeffs is heard telling the girls that what "the five of you are about to do is important."
Prosecutors suggested that the polygamist leader told the girls they needed to have sex with him — in what Jeffs called "heavenly" or "celestial" sessions — in order to atone for sins in his community. Several times in his journals, Jeffs wrote of God telling him to take more and more young girls as brides "who can be worked with and easily taught."
FBI agent John Broadway testified that fathers who gave their young daughters to Jeffs were rewarded with young brides of their own. Girls who proved reluctant to have sex with Jeffs were sent away, according to excerpts from Jeffs' journals that prosecutors showed to the jury.
Police raided the group's remote Yearning for Zion ranch in West Texas 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.
After the sentencing, Willie Jessop, who had served as a spokesman for the FLDS Church following the raid on the YFZ ranch, was asked if he'd return to the ranch.
"I've never lived at the ranch. I will go back there long enough to make sure those guard towers come down and the people are there because they want to be there and not because they're forced to be there," he said in a video posted by a San Angelo Times reporter.
"I want to make sure that every mom down there has their cellphones and they have Internet and that they have choices — the same choices that I enjoy and you enjoy as an American. And if those choices are removed by some totalitarian authority that's going on here today yeah, I'll be back," he said.
Jessop has not served as the church spokesman since he was reportedly among 30-35 men — including YFZ ranch leader Merrill Jessop — who were kicked out of the FLDS Church early this year by Jeffs, and has since disavowed the leader.
When asked if he would be welcomed back to the ranch, Willie Jessop hinted that it would depend on the residents' loyalty.
"It depends on if you're part of this kind of authority, no. If you're part of what the mothers and children and people I've always represent and will represent, I'll say I'll be welcomed back."
Jeffs is the eighth FLDS man convicted since the raid on the YFZ ranch, in the town of Eldorado. Previous sentences ranged from six to 75 years in prison.
The church's traditional headquarters is along the Utah-Arizona border, but it established the Texas compound in 2004. Jeffs once faced criminal charges in Arizona and was convicted of accessory to rape in Utah in 2007. But that was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court and he was extradited to Texas in December.