Sifting through volumes of FLDS evidence proving to be tedious

Published: Monday, April 28 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Texas authorities expressed frustration Monday at the slow process of sorting through all the items seized from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's ranch near here.
The Texas Supreme Court Monday assigned Court of Appeals Justice Molly Francis to review the estimated 1,000 boxes of documents and other items to determine what information could be considered private under the attorney-client privilege.
The items seized by Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officers is being held in a Department of Public Safety room in San Angelo.
"That room is floor to ceiling with boxes," explained attorney Bob Switzer, who for the past two weeks has been trying to sort through the many items for lawyers representing the FLDS Church and some of its followers.
Judge Barbara Walther held an informal hearing Monday and allowed attorneys to address the lack of progress.
Prosecutor Allison Palmer complained that during one full day, only half of one box had been inspected by two lawyers. She said attorneys for the church were slowing down the process by spending too much time analyzing the documents instead of simply determining whether the material was privileged.
Switzer insisted he is not trying to slow the process down. "There is no way to go through a box with the equivalent of 10 reams of Xerox paper and do it quickly," he said.
"The problem we have is one page may have just a paragraph or three lines that are protected, but the rest of the page isn't."
Attorney Cynthia Orr argued that she and other attorneys for the church must also review the documents while considering more than just the current case involving the custody of 462 children. Some FLDS members are involved in civil lawsuits and the FBI also seized property from the ranch and may pursue criminal charges.
"I've been so focused on this case I didn't consider other" potential legal cases, Walther said.
The judge said Francis was assessing the evidence Monday and would have a good understanding of what needs to be done. Walther said in past cases, she has conducted similar evidence reviews herself, such as in a case of sexual abuse involving the Catholic church.
"Judges have some experience doing that and it speeds things up," she said. After this week, another judge has been lined up to replace Francis to sort through the evidence.
Switzer said, however, that because of the sheer volume of items — including many laptop computers that may contain many documents themselves — he expects the process to continue to be cumbersome.
"Two people with a clerk will take weeks," he said. "One person without will take longer."
Walther expressed concern about quickly examining the many medical records of the children so some of them could be released. She said one particular FLDS mother of a child with a long-term medical condition needed the records to pass on to those providing medical care to her child. As of Friday, all of the children removed from the YFZ Ranch earlier this month have been taken to foster care facilities.
"Doctors want to get to that information," the judge said, adding she didn't see how such records applied to an attorney-client privilege.
Some records that might apply to that standard, however, were briefly addressed Monday, including documents labeled "bishop's records" and "letters to Warren Jeffs."
Switzer said he considers the Jeffs letters privileged because Jeffs is considered the prophet of the FLDS Church. The judge wasn't so sure.
"Just because it says Warren Jeffs on it, everything he says is spiritual advice?" the judge asked.
Switzer said Jeffs has dual legal roles in many letters, as a friend and a spiritual leader. "A letter may say, 'I love you,' but then ask for spiritual advice," he said.
The "bishop's records" is also an issue likely to be addressed in the future. While Walther said she could see "nothing spiritual" and therefore nothing privileged about a list of church members, attorney Gerald Goldstein would not concede. He said such a membership list may be protected because its release may violate church members' rights of free association and free speech.
Walther agreed Monday to inspect a 2 1/2 -inch stack of documents already culled from the evidence to determine whether they are privileged or should be released to the state.
Officers raided the ranch for several days earlier this month as part of an investigation into sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children there. An 88-page search warrant return listed items seized from the property, which included photographs, computers, hard drives, journals and identification papers, dozens of collections of "white clothing," "temple clothes," cameras, cell phones, scriptures, children's notebooks, tax records, writing assignments, report cards, baby books, letters from attorneys, and a paper entitled "My Testimony."
The search warrant return also lists several pages of "miscellaneous documents" from cardboard boxes in addition to "prison mail," "mail from Canadian Saints" and "mail from houses in hiding."

E-mail: bwest@desnews.com

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