ELDORADO, Texas — Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott made a surprise appearance Tuesday at the trial of a polygamist group member, taking notes during jury selection but not actively participating in the questioning of potential jurors.
Abbott appeared at the prosecutors' table for the start of jury selection in the case against Allan Keate, 57. Keate faces up to life in prison if convicted of sexual assault of a child for his alleged "spiritual marriage" to a 15-year-old.
Keate is the second member of the Fundamentalist LDS Church to face criminal trial since Texas authorities raided the polygamist group's ranch last year.
Abbott's office is handling the prosecutions in tiny Schleicher County. He previously made a presentation to a grand jury in the case, but he did not comment on why he decided to participate in Keate's trial in particular. In all, 12 men from the sect were indicted after the raid.
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said Abbott's unusual appearance before potential jurors at a criminal trial was proof that the prosecution was political after the state was forced to return the 439 children taken from the sect's parents last year.
"It was political to come here and put himself visibly in front of all the jurors," he said.
Abbott's spokesman didn't immediately respond to a call seeking comment Tuesday evening.
The charge against Keate stems from his alleged "spiritual marriage" in 2005 to a girl who was 15. Prosecutors say she got pregnant when she was 16, younger than the age at which she could legally consent to sex under Texas law.
Officials sent jury summonses to 300 residents in an effort to get 12 jurors and two alternates for the trial. They sent the same number for the first trial, that of Raymond Jessop last month, and it took more than three days to seat the jury that later convicted him of sexual assault of a child and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
By Tuesday, the Keate jury pool had been weeded to about a 100 people. Jury selection was to continue today.
Most residents know one another in this ranching community, and the raid in April 2008 of the sect's Yearning For Zion Ranch became international news for weeks as women and children in prairie dresses were taken from the ranch.
Several potential jurors admitted knowing a lot about the raid and being unsure they could impartially serve as jurors in the case.
Church records seized from the ranch were used to help build criminal cases against some of the sect men. In all, 11 were indicted on felony charges, including sexual assault and bigamy; the sect's doctor faces misdemeanor charges of failure to report child abuse.
Seized church records indicate that as of March 2007, Keate had six wives, ranging in age from 17 to 49.
Writings by sect leader Warren Jeffs, also seized by authorities, indicate that two of those wives were reassigned to Keate from one of Jeffs' brothers, who Jeffs considered an instrument of Lucifer.
"The Lord had me seal eleven of his former ladies to other men living on this land," wrote Jeffs, ticking off the reassignment of wives and children to five different men. "So all of that is settled. Leave what is in the Lord's hands in the Lord's hands."
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Historically based at the Arizona-Utah line, the FLDS bought a ranch about 150 miles northwest of San Antonio six years ago and began building massive log homes and a towering temple.