ST. GEORGE, UTAH — The leader of a polygamous cult was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life in prison Tuesday for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl he forced to marry her 19-year-old cousin.
A gaunt Warren Jeffs, 51, sat silently as Judge James L. Shumate handed down the sentence. Prosecutors had urged the judge to make an example of Jeffs, who is seen as a prophet by about 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon splinter group that has been disavowed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"There needs to be a message sent . . . that you cannot hide behind your position as a religious leader," prosecutor Ryan Shaum said.
Utah's sentencing laws make it difficult to determine how much time Jeffs will spend in prison. Judges hand down a range of time that convicts may serve rather than specific sentences. The state parole board decides when inmates are released. Shumate gave Jeffs the maximum sentence, deciding that he would serve back-to-back sentences of five years to life for the two counts of serving as an accomplice to rape.
The parole board will evaluate Jeffs' case in three years but it is "highly unlikely" it would order a release before the minimum sentence is served, said Kent Jones, a senior hearing officer.
In court, Shumate noted that Jeffs knew that it was illegal in Utah for 14-year-olds to marry. The wedding was performed in Nevada.
He also made an emotional statement to the victim, Elissa Wall, now 21, who has asked reporters to use her name.
Shumate told Wall that he understood that she had rejected making Jeffs pay her the restitution she was legally entitled to.
"I know from fact that whatever I do today will not make it better," he told Wall, who praised the justice system for believing her. "You live under a life sentence. Your courage in carrying on is laudable but you don't have to do it alone."
Wall said she would not accept payment from Jeffs. She has a separate lawsuit against him and the FLDS church, and has said any money awarded in that suit would be used to create a fund to help other girls and women who flee the church.
Jeffs did not speak in the courtroom, but his attorneys said later they would appeal his conviction.
"The conduct Mr. Jeffs is being held responsible for is not rape," attorney Walter F. Bugden told reporters. Rather, it is presiding over an unlawful marriage.
"I don't think this measures up to a jump-out-the-bushes rapist who rapes someone multiple times," Bugden argued in court. "This religious man, deeply religious man was urging the couple to have children in the deepness of time."
During the September trial, witnesses testified that Jeffs refused Wall's pleas to avoid marrying her cousin. After her husband forced himself on her, Wall testified that she told Jeffs he was "touching me in ways I don't like" and asked him to dissolve the marriage. He again refused.
Wall eventually began a relationship with another man and left the church, and Jeffs dissolved the marriage. Her former husband, Allen Steed, had testified that his wife never objected to having sex. Steed was charged with rape the day after Jeffs was convicted.
As he awaited trial, Jeffs confessed to visitors that he was not the true prophet, according to court records unsealed earlier this month. He also tried to hang himself in his cell and developed sores on his knees from praying. Jeffs faces additional criminal charges in Arizona and in federal court.
Jeffs' followers filled the courtroom for the sentencing, wearing dark suits and floor-length dresses and followed their custom of refusing to talk to reporters. A former FLDS member who watched the hearing, Flora Jessop, said new leaders were already jockeying for position in the community.
"To some people he [Jeffs] is a martyr," Jessop said. "But there are thousands of kids who are sleeping safer because he's going to prison."