SAN ANGELO, Texas — The first hint of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs' defense came Monday when his attorney said his right to freedom of religion was trampled by Texas prosecutors, who claim he sexually assaulted two underage girls after manipulating them into so-called "spiritual marriages."
Jury selection began Monday in the case of the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church's 10,000 members believe Jeffs is a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.
About 280 potential jurors completed written questionnaires. The questions weren't made public, but the prosecution and defense will have the chance to quiz the potential jurors about their responses when they return Tuesday.
"There's no right answer," District Judge Barbara Walther told them. "The only wrong thing you can do is not tell the truth."
Things only got started, however, after Walther rejected a request for a 3-month delay from Jeffs' latest attorney, Deric Walpole. He said he had spent 18 to 22 hours a day on the case since being hired last week but it wasn't enough time to prepare. He said it would be a "great injustice" to start the trial Monday.
"I've done everything I can to get ready," Walpole said. "I'm not asking for a lot given the gravity of this case."
Jeffs, backed by an FLDS land trust worth more than $110 million, has had seven attorneys appear on his behalf in recent months. Prosecutors say his frequent switching of attorneys is a delay tactic.
In turning down Walpole's request, Walther said one reason he has had so much work to do in so little time is that Jeffs not only fired his previous attorney but asked Walpole not to consult him — an order that was beyond the court's control.
While stating his case, Walpole gave the first public hint of Jeffs' defense, saying "my client's right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy."
All of Jeffs' previous attorneys have been tight-lipped about their approach to the case, as have prosecutors. Walpole said Jeffs provides input on all motions he files, including his pending request to have the trial moved because San Angelo residents frequently check out anti-FLDS books at a library across the street from the courthouse.
Tall and lanky with thick glasses, Jeffs has made numerous appearances in Walther's court wearing a prison jumper. He wore a black suit Monday and spent part of the hearing for a delay with his head bowed and his eyes mostly closed, as if he were praying. He was more attentive during the subsequent jury selection process, frequently whispering things to his attorneys. Church faithful rise when he enters the room.
Jeffs is accused of sexual assaulting two girls, one younger than 17 and one younger than 14. The charges against him include aggravated sexual assault of a child, which is punishable by up to 99 years to life in prison.
He faces a separate trial for bigamy in October.
The charges stem from an April 2008 police raid on a church compound known as Yearning For Zion outside the town of Eldorado, about 45 miles south of the West Texas oil and gas town of San Angelo. Authorities who believed girls were being forced into polygamous marriages removed more than 400 children living at the compound, and TV images of women wearing frontier-style dresses and 19th century hairdos were shown across the country.
The original call to a Texas domestic abuse hotline that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax. Most of the children seized from the compound have since been returned to their families, but the evidence collected during the raid proved enough to charge Jeffs and 11 other church men with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy.
Seven church members have been convicted and received prison sentences of between 6 and 75 years. While Jeffs has been in prison, a former church bishop, William Jessop, has claimed authority as presiding FLDS president — a move Jeffs opposes.
Jeffs' church has its traditional headquarters along the Utah-Arizona border, and Jeffs was convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah in 2007, though that ruling was overturned by the state Supreme Court.