Jeffs' Conviction: A Winning Ploy

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Douglas C. Pizac / Pool / Getty

Warren Jeffs was found guilty of two counts of being an accomplice in the rape of a teenage girl.

The conviction of religious leader Warren Jeffs — self-proclaimed Prophet to the largest polygamist group in North America — was a victory for a new tactic being used by prosecutors in western states. The problem: polygamist churches that were marrying off young girls to older men, some brides as young as 14 and often closely related to their husbands. The proposed solution: go after the church leaders as accessories to rape.

The jury in St. George, Utah, agreed with the proscution. Jeffs, who heads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS), was found guilty of two counts of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl, known throughout the trial as "Jane Doe IV," by forcing her into marriage with her first cousin, Allen Steed. In a town that is a 50-50 split between old Mormon residents and newcomers with more liberal politics and lifestyles — a split echoed in the makeup of the eight-person jury — it was a gamble for both sides. Would Mormons harbor secret sympathy for polygamists, or come down harder on the sect? Would newcomers be horrified by the child marriages, or see the prosecution as religious persecution? After two and a half days of deliberation and the replacement of one juror, they found that Jeffs did "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly solicit, request, command or encourage" a 19-year-old follower to rape his 14-year-old bride at least twice.

During his summation, Jeffs' lawyer Walter Bugden said the 51-year-old leader was being prosecuted for his religious beliefs and described the victim, Elissa Walls, now 21, who publicly revealed her identity on the last day of the trial, as "no shrinking violet" and her husband, first cousin Allen Steed as a "milquetoast," not a rapist. She had flirted and enticed her husband, Bugden said. It was an old, familiar tactic in rape cases. But prosecutor Brock Belnap won the day by arguing that what Jeffs did by urging the two to "go forth and multiply" was no different from sacrificing a young virgin for the harvest — a religious belief, but a criminal act. "This trial has not been about religion and a vendetta," Walls said on the courthouse steps after the verdict. "It is simply about child abuse."

Indeed, the legal strategy used so effectively in St. George grew out of a "polygamy summit" held in 2003 by the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona. They had brainstormed and decided to launch an aggressive effort to utilize child abuse, domestic abuse and fraud laws to break the cycle of child marriages. Bigamy, although against the law in Utah, is sometimes difficult to prove and does not carry the heavy penalties found in child abuse laws. Gary Gale, an Ogden, Utah defense attorney who has worked in several high-profile cases involving polygamy, knows this well. In January, Gale represented a Brigham, Utah, man, who, though a bigamist, was facing four first-degree felony counts for rape of his young wife. (Utah recently raised the age of consent from 14 to 16 and it is illegal for a person of authority or trust to have sex with anyone under 18.) Gayle's client took a plea agreement, but still was punished with significant prison time, far greater than any he would have received for violating bigamy statutes.

The historic roots of polygamy in the region too have often made trying polygamy cases difficult and sensitive. Utah, a state founded by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints — Mormons — rejected polygamy in the 1890s as it bid for statehood and now "wants to live down" the image. Says Gale, "Generally, Mormons believe it is a taboo subject." By making the case focus on child and domestic abuse laws, prosecutors avoided the touchy topic.

Jeffs will now face from five years to life in prison on both counts. Ahead of him are additional charges of sex with a minor and acting as an accomplice to incest in Arizona, plus a federal charge of unlawful flight. The "polygamy summit" appears to have paid off for Utah authorities, and other polygamist communities are stepping back from child marriages, according to Paul Murphy, an assistant to Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. But the FLDS, with communities in Canada and Utah, plus compounds in Texas and South Dakota, has resisted change. What the response will be to the imprisonment of the Prophet is difficult to gauge. Sharpshooters stood on rooftops circling the small St. George courthouse as the verdict was read. But the reaction from the two dozen FLDS followers in the courtroom was muted.