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Polygamist Leader Appears in Court

September 28, 2006|From the Associated Press

ST. GEORGE, Utah — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, a fugitive for nearly two years, appeared in a Utah courtroom Wednesday and said he was willing to wait several weeks for a judge to decide whether to send him to trial on charges of arranging an underage marriage.

When Judge James L. Shumate asked if the delay was acceptable, Jeffs replied, "Yes, sir. Yes, your honor."

The judge set a Nov. 21 probable cause hearing and said he would address Jeffs' bond status at that time. Jeffs remains in jail.

The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes for the self-proclaimed prophet who heads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeffs is charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony that carries life in prison. Under his suit, tie and white shirt, Jeffs was wearing a bulletproof vest. There was tight security inside and outside the Washington County courthouse, including SWAT teams.

Prosecutors claim Jeffs, 50, forced a teenage girl to enter a spiritual marriage with an older man and submit to sex to produce children. The girl twice told Jeffs she didn't want to marry or have sex, but was told it was her "spiritual duty" to submit because the marriage had been arranged by God, court filings say.

"The victim is doing well," Brian Filter, chief deputy county attorney, said outside court, adding that he expected the victim would testify at the hearing.

Asked by reporters whether this was religious persecution, defense attorney Walter Bugden said "absolutely."

Named to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list in May, Jeffs was arrested last month during a traffic stop near Las Vegas.

Jeffs, who took over the church leadership from his father in 2002, is also facing two felony charges in Arizona on similar allegations. He'll face the charges after the Utah case.

One of Jeffs' lawyers said before the hearing that finding a jury with impartial or even mild views on polygamy may be difficult in Washington County. "There's a real skepticism brought to bear on their claims," said Rod Parker, who believes sect members are perceived differently than other clients he has defended. "It's very subtle, but it's there."

For nearly 100 years, members of the sect, which numbers about 10,000, have lived a quiet, insular life in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The sect broke away from the Mormon church more than a century ago and has been disavowed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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