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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Warren Jeffs rubs his nose Tuesday. He appeared to have trouble holding himself up and struggled to concentrate at times.

ST. GEORGE — Looking skeletal and frail, Warren Jeffs stood and raised his hand.

"May I approach the bench?" the Fundamentalist LDS Church leader asked the judge at the end of a long day of hearings here in 5th District Court Tuesday. "I need to just take care of one matter."

Judge James Shumate refused to hear it, urging Jeffs to speak to his lawyers.

"Can I take care of it now?" Jeffs asked again.

Jeffs began bending over, trying to write something on a pad of paper. He feebly tore at the paper, appearing to have trouble even holding himself up. Washington County sheriff's deputies swarmed around him and ordered the courtroom to be cleared.

Jeffs' lawyers took the writing from him.

The FLDS leader's defense team refused to comment on his unusual courtroom behavior.

"He is very frail," attorney Walter Bugden Jr. told reporters outside the courtroom.

He would not say what his client wanted to talk to the judge about. Prosecutors also refused to talk about Jeffs' appearance or health.

"You guys were in court when I was," Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap told the Deseret Morning News as he walked back to his office. "I'll leave it to you to draw your judgments."

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Throughout Tuesday's hearing, Jeffs exhibited bizarre behavior. He struggled to concentrate and at times appeared to be nodding off. At one point, Jeffs' head dipped down and a strand of drool ran from his lips onto his shirt. He jerked awake, then wiped his mouth and shirt.

Jeffs' courtroom behavior capped a day of defeat for his legal team. The judge denied a series of motions seeking to derail the criminal case against the polygamist leader, including a request to stay the criminal trial and move it to Salt Lake County.

"We intend to appeal. We're going to do everything we can to represent Mr. Jeffs' interests," Bugden said.

Jeffs, 51, is charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony. He is accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

Defense attorneys have asked to move the trial from St. George to Salt Lake County, citing the overwhelming amount of media coverage that has surrounded the polygamist leader.

"Jury selection is the most important moment in a trial," Bugden told the judge.

To bolster his case, Bugden put Deseret Morning News pollster Dan Jones on the witness stand. Jones insisted Jeffs could not get a fair trial in St. George. Jones' poll found that in Washington County, 52 percent of those surveyed believe Jeffs is "definitely guilty" and 23 percent believe he is "probably guilty." In contrast, 39 percent of those surveyed in Salt Lake County believe Jeffs is "definitely guilty" and another 39 percent believe he is "probably guilty."

"I believe Salt Lake County is the county in which this defendant can get a more fair trial than in Washington County," Jones said, pounding his fist on the witness stand.

Prosecutors and the judge took issue with his conclusions, saying the size of the jury pool would be the same in Washington County as it would be in Salt Lake City.

Defense lawyers pointed to the immense media coverage of Jeffs, who was once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Shumate came close to granting their request, lashing out at a St. George-area newspaper, in particular.

"When the court sees the kind of language submitted to it by the local media, the ability to find a reasonable likelihood is substantially impaired," the judge said, looking at reporters in the courtroom. "What I do not know is if it has been fatally impaired. I cannot know until I impanel a jury."

Shumate said that if during jury selection it becomes obvious he could not seat an impartial jury, he would move the trial to Salt Lake County.

The judge also denied a pair of motions challenging Utah's rape-as-an-accomplice law and the order binding Jeffs over for trial. Lawyer Richard Wright argued the statute is too broad and anyone would be open to prosecution.

"It is plain and simple arbitrary enforcement," Wright said, challenging the rape law as unconstitutionally vague.

Challenging the judge's decision to bind Jeffs over for trial, defense attorney Tara Isaacson said the idea of a "husband-wife" relationship being a "position of trust" could be applied too broadly to other cultures. Isaacson also claimed the FLDS leader was unaware of any non-consensual sex taking place between the alleged victim and her husband in this case.

"It was a reasonable belief of Mr. Jeffs that there would be consensual intercourse," she said.

The judge denied the motion, saying his initial decision was appropriate.

Jeffs' defense team isn't finished yet. Next month, it will challenge the traffic stop that led to the polygamist leader's arrest outside Las Vegas. The team also filed a motion Monday asking prosecutors to identify any other crimes or "wrongs" they intend to introduce at trial related to Jeffs.

Washington County prosecutors refused to comment again on a Deseret Morning News report that Jeffs had reportedly renounced his claim as "prophet" of the FLDS Church. A law enforcement source said the FLDS leader made the statement at the Purgatory Jail during a conversation with one of Jeffs' brothers.

Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Mohave County Attorney's Office investigator Gary Engels said he could not say whether Jeffs made the statement or if a tape of his comments was in the hands of law enforcement.

During Tuesday's hearing, Jeffs tried to smile and nod a couple of times to his faithful followers, who packed two rows of the courtroom. They refused to answer reporters' questions about Jeffs.

Private investigator Sam Brower has been pursuing Jeffs for lawyers suing the FLDS Church. Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, he said Jeffs' influence on the polygamous communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., may be waning now that the polygamist leader is behind bars.

"I've been saying he wasn't a prophet for three years," Brower said.


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