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Jeffs told girl to submit, lawyer says

The polygamist leader urged a 14-year-old to give her 'body and soul' to her cousin, a prosecutor alleges.

September 14, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

ST. GEORGE, UTAH — A 14-year-old girl was told to submit her "body and soul" to her cousin, whom she'd been forced to marry, a prosecutor said Thursday at the trial of a polygamous sect leader charged with being an accomplice to rape.

Washington County prosecutor Brock Belnap told jurors in opening statements that Warren Jeffs essentially forced the alleged victim into her wedding bed.

He ordered the girl to marry her cousin, then 19, and turned down her request to get out of the union after she complained of being "touched" inappropriately, Belnap said.

Jeffs is charged with two counts of rape by accomplice, and could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Defense attorney Tara Isaacson countered that Jeffs, 51, had merely counseled the girl to "make this marriage work" and that his teaching forbade forced sex. "He didn't ever counsel her to submit to rape," Isaacson said.

The trial comes amid a crackdown by state authorities on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a roughly 10,000-member sect based along the Utah-Arizona border. Jeffs was a fugitive for nearly two years, and landed on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list before being arrested while driving outside Las Vegas in August 2006.

The reclusive sect believes polygamy is the key to salvation and that Jeffs, whom followers call "the prophet," is the earthly embodiment of God. Jeffs took over the church leadership from his father in 2002.

The alleged victim, now 21, testified Thursday that Jeffs was both a principal and teacher at her elementary school in Salt Lake City. She said that in 1999, Jeffs excommunicated her father and moved her and many of her 24 siblings to a ranch in southern Utah. There, her new family -- a household of 45 led by another man -- played tapes of Jeffs' teachings throughout the day.

In one tape of a home economics class, she said, Jeffs expounded on a woman's marital responsibilities. "That means full obedience," she quoted him as saying. "No halfway, no holding back. You're literally taken from your father's home and given" to a husband.

With the sect centered about 40 miles away in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., it was difficult to find jurors in St. George who didn't have an opinion about Jeffs. It took three days to find eight panelists and four alternates, the standard size for a Utah jury, who said they could be unbiased.

On Thursday, the small courtroom was packed with reporters, as well as a dozen Jeffs supporters. The 10 men wore dark suits and ties, and the two women were in monochromatic full-length dresses with long sleeves. They rose when Jeffs, dressed in a dark suit and tie, entered the courtroom. In keeping with the sect's practice, they did not speak to the media.

The case is an unusual one. In Utah, the rape-by-accomplice charge can be applied to those who force underage marriages as well as to someone who assists in an attack. In a 1999 case, a man was convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of his 13-year-old daughter, whom he married in a "patriarchal" ceremony to a 48-year-old man.

"The charge really is a creation of the unique situation in this state," said Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at the University of Utah. "It is proving to be one of the only ways to go after polygamous leaders -- or in some case the parents -- in cases that involve, usually, underage girls."

Medwed and other legal experts said a key to the prosecution's case is demonstrating that Jeffs knew that sex would be part of the marriage. Jeffs' attorneys stressed that the prosecution would have to prove he knew the sex was not consensual.

Isaacson said FLDS teachings require a wife to obey her husband only if the husband is "righteous." "Rape, of course, would never be acting in righteousness," she said.

Belnap told jurors that the alleged victim, who also has filed a civil suit against Jeffs, told Jeffs that she thought she was too young to marry -- and specifically didn't want to marry her cousin. The girl avoided sex for several weeks after the April 2001 marriage ceremony but was ultimately raped, Belnap said.

She then pleaded with Jeffs to be freed from the union, telling him her husband was "touching me in ways I don't like," Belnap said. But she was chastised.

"Warren Jeffs said: 'Repent. Go home and give yourself mind, body and soul to your husband,' " Belnap said.


Times staff writer Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.

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