Prosecutors rest in Warren Jeffs trial after playing tape of alleged assault with 12-year-old

By Will Weissert

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 3 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

SAN ANGELO, Texas — FLDS leader Warren Jeffs gave a delayed opening statement about religious persecution Wednesday at his trial, where he is defending himself on charges of sexually abusing underage girls.

His surprise 30-minute statement followed prosecutors resting their case against him, after they played an audiotape of what they said was him assaulting a 12-year-old he had taken as a "spiritual wife."

Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Utah-based Fundamentalist LDS Church, evoked images of the civil rights movement and asked the jury to remember constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

His sect believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church's 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.

After his statement, which attorneys have the option to make when they begin presenting their cases, he called one of his church's members to testify. JD Roundy read from Mormon scripture.

Jeffs introduced as evidence the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, attempting to link the offshoot FLDS religion to the early history of the LDS faith. Under questioning by Jeffs, Roundy read passages of scripture evidently to demonstrate that prophets are always persecuted in their own time.

The judge and prosecutor are giving Jeffs a lot of latitude, although both have strongly  questioned the relevance of his scriptural defense. One courthouse worker was overheard saying, "I'd like to see him read the part where it says it's OK to rape little girls."

Jeffs is accused of sexually assaulting two girls, the 12-year-old and a 15-year-old. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 119 years to life in prison.

Prosecutors called 22 witnesses over five days, but neither of the alleged victims participated in the case.

On Tuesday, prosecutors played two tapes of Jeffs instructing the older girl, as well as several 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 the FLDS Church's Yearning For Zion ranch in remote Eldorado, Texas. 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.

Nick Hanna, a Texas Ranger involved in the 2008 raid, said Wednesday's recording with the 12-year-old 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 the ranch.

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 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."

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