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Legal experts say Jeffs' self-defense is bound to fail

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 2:14 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Until Friday, it appeared as though Warren Jeffs' legal defense strategy in Texas was going to be putting on no defense at all.

But a day after remaining silent to the point of appearing to not even pay attention to his own trial, the problem at times in court Friday was getting Jeffs to stop talking.

Jeffs is on trial in San Angelo, Texas, on two counts of sexual assault of a child.

In a dramatic courtroom moment Thursday, Jeffs fired his high powered defense team right before opening arguments. He asked Judge Barbara Walther if he could represent himself, and she eventually consented.

During Thursday's proceedings, Jeffs sat quietly and said nothing, not once raising an objection or even offering an opening argument. He didn't take notes or seem to pay attention when the prosecution called its first five witnesses. When the judge asked if Jeffs wanted to cross-examine a witness or if he wanted to object, Jeffs wouldn't answer.

That silent strategy changed Friday in more dramatic fashion when Jeffs raised an objection while the prosecution was questioning an FBI agent, and then rambled for nearly an hour. He argued that practicing polygamy should be protected under freedom of religion and religious expression.

Jeffs said his church has practiced five generations of polygamy as ordered by God, a higher power than U.S. courts. Jeffs ended by saying "amen," then repeatedly interrupted a prosecutor's response.

Walther ordered Jeffs to follow legal procedure, then dismissed the jury and called a recess.

Legal experts in Utah who are not involved with the Jeffs' trial, say the decision by the head of the FLDS Church to represent himself is not a good one.

"It's very, very foolish," said defense attorney Greg Skordas. "There's certain things you just don't do on your own. Defending yourself in a criminal case is one of them. It's certain to fail, it's absolutely certain to fail."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also believes it's a bad move for Jeffs to act as his own attorney. Even though he wants the prosecution to succeed, Shurtleff said for the sake of the legal system, Jeffs should be represented by real attorneys.

"I really wish he'd use his lawyers. He's not qualified to do it himself," he said. "I'd just prefer he's had every possible chance to defend himself."

If Jeffs is convicted and later tries to appeal, saying the judge should have given him more warning about representing himself, Skordas doesn't believe that will work.

"I'm sure this judge went through a very thorough dialogue with him, like an assumption of risk," Skordas said. "If he waives all that, he can't later appeal and say, 'I should have had those privileges.'"

Shurtleff concurred, saying the judge should "consistently remind him this is not a good idea."

"I believe in justice and justice in our legal system means having the opportunity to provide an adequate defense," he said. "What do you do when he's up there objecting for an hour? It's frustrating."

Walther, in fact, told Jeffs when he asked to represent himself to rethink his proposal, saying, "You have assembled one of the most impressive legal teams this court has ever seen and perhaps ever seen in the state of Texas. ... I urge you not to follow this course of action."

Skordas believes sitting and not putting up a defense at all — as Jeffs did Thursday — would "turn off" a jury and likely result in a very fast guilty verdict.

Skordas gave his opinion on the case before Jeffs' long rant on Friday.

He noted that Jeffs was quite active in his legal defense in his Utah case. By not saying anything in his own defense in Texas, Skordas said one is left to assume that Jeffs doesn't believe he can win.

"He might think he has no chance of wining this. He might think he's going to lose anyway so, 'I might as well go down as a martyr,'" Skordas said. "He may be thinking now, 'If you're going to lose, why not go down as a martyr?'"

The timing of his decision to represent himself is interesting to Skordas, who said if Jeffs really wanted to be a martyr, he might have decided two weeks ago to represent himself.

Shurtleff, however, doesn't believe martyrdom is the reasoning behind Jeffs' odd defense strategy.

"I think he wants to walk free. I think he's convinced himself God is going to free him anyway," he said. "He's a smart guy, there's no doubt about that."

But Jeffs also believes he is a prophet of God and doesn't need to answer to the legal system because it's contrary to his own law, Shurtleff said. "He truly believes he's above the law."

Shurtleff said prosecutors in Texas have a "good solid case" against Jeffs and believes the jury will find him guilty and probably sentence him to life in prison.

Contributing: Associated Press

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