Texas Polygamists Prep for Criminal Trials

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Mike Terry / Deseret Morning News / Getty

An aerial view of the Yearning for Zion compound in Texas owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that was raided in April 2008

As courtroom drama goes, the upcoming trials in the quiet West Texas oasis of San Angelo should be humdingers: a dozen male members of a Mormom polygamist sect have been indicted on a bevy of charges, ranging from bigamy to sex with a child, stemming from a raid last year in which protective service officials removed more than 400 children from the Yearning For Zion compound. The trials are set to begin in October. But as every lawyer knows, this summer's crop of pretrial motions, however boring they may sound, will greatly shape the jury verdicts — or any possible plea bargains — by largely determining what is allowed to be used in the trials and what isn't.

At the heart of the legal battle are the 66 computers and 928 boxes of other evidence, including of a photo of former FLDS leader Warren Jeffs kissing his allegedly 12-year-old bride, that were seized during the April 2008 raid. Defense attorneys are trying to keep this evidence from being used in the trials because of the bizarre backstory now surrounding the search warrant. The warrant was based on tips from a Colorado woman who was posing as a former member of the compound and who is now facing criminal charges for filing a false report.

But Charles Bubany, a professor who teaches criminal procedure at Texas Tech University School of Law, says the admissibility of the evidence likely will boil down to whether the judge had a reasonable belief that there was criminal activity taking place at the ranch, regardless of the after-the-fact discovery of the false report. The same judge who signed the search warrant and green-lighted the raid, Texas District Judge Barbara Walther, is presiding over the criminal cases.

The Texas cases aren't the only legal woes facing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Leading members of the Canadian branch of the FLDS, centered in Bountiful, British Columbia, are facing polygamy charges. The men have appealed to Canada's high court saying the law banning polygamy violates the country's freedom of religion clause. Winston Blackmore, the group's self-described "Bishop of Bountiful," is pleading poverty due to a downturn in the community's sawmill business and is asking the Canadian government to foot his million-dollar legal bill.

Financial problems also plague the American wing of the FLDS, according to Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney and frequent spokesman for the Texas-based organization. He says his clients are "hemorrhaging a huge amount of money" fighting the morass of legal cases, including a long-running battle over an estimated $110 million property trust in Utah. The trust, which is named the United Effort Plan Trust, was set up by the polygamous sect's leadership in 1942 but was placed under court oversight in 2005, when allegations of mismanagement surfaced in several lawsuits brought by former FLDS members. A judge Wednesday rejected the latest settlement plans, and so the saga continues.