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Jeffs' attorney says religion is really on trial

In closing arguments, the county prosecutor counters: 'Belief is one thing. Hurting young people is another.'

September 22, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

st. george, utah -- A polygamous sect's leader on trial here is a scapegoat charged with an inflated offense for political reasons, his defense attorney said Friday.

Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is charged with being an accomplice to rape of a 14-year-old girl because he purportedly forced her to marry her 19-year-old cousin.

During closing arguments in Jeffs' trial, attorney Walter F. Bugden Jr. pointed at the more than two dozen reporters in the courtroom and noted that the Utah attorney general himself had attended the trial one day. "This is no small case," Bugden said. "The state has gone crazy for political reasons.

"The state can say Warren Steed Jeffs is on trial, but it's his . . . church, his religious beliefs that is on trial here, dressed up as a crime called rape," he said.

Washington County Attorney Brock R. Belnap's face reddened as he responded sharply to Bugden's contention. "It is absolutely repugnant to me that the suggestion was made that I or any prosecutor would try someone's religion," Belnap said.

The law may protect religion, but it does not allow people to commit crimes under the guise of their faith, Belnap said. "Belief is one thing. Hurting young people is another," he said.

Jurors deliberated about two hours before going home Friday. They are to return Monday.

During the weeklong trial, prosecutors have argued that Jeffs pressured the girl into marriage, then refused to free her when she complained that her husband was touching her in ways she did not like.

Bugden contended that prosecutors should have charged Jeffs with officiating at an unlawful marriage rather than with being an accomplice to rape. The former charge carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The latter could bring a life sentence.

The 10,000-member sect headed by Jeffs is based along the Utah-Arizona border. Since 2003, authorities in both states have escalated pressure on the church, and Jeffs spent years as a fugitive until he was arrested outside Las Vegas in 2006.

The FLDS portrays itself as a fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy in 1890 and does not recognize the sect.

In closing arguments, the two sides used contrasting styles to present sharply different views of the case.

Belnap, the county's short, owlish top prosecutor, sat through the entire trial but did not question any witnesses. He gave a brisk, methodical closing argument focusing on legal issues.

He argued that jurors must convict Jeffs if they believe he helped entice or coerce the accuser into a situation in which she would be compelled to have sex against her will.

The accuser testified that her husband forced her; he testified that she initiated the contact.

Even if the accuser ultimately agreed to the sex, Belnap said, she was so young that such agreement did not matter in the eyes of the law.

Bugden, one of the state's best-known criminal defense attorneys, gave a sweeping overview, arguing that common sense would show that Jeffs was innocent.

Tall, with bushy hair and a trim bow tie, Bugden noted that the accuser has a lawsuit pending against Jeffs and his church. Bugden contended that she thus had a financial motive to recall her unwanted marriage in a dark light.

"What has happened is, over time, [the accuser's] story has evolved in her mind from a bad marriage, having 'sexual relations I'm not thrilled with' . . . to a story of rape," Bugden said. "Money changes everything."

He argued that the accuser, now 21, was a strong-willed girl who was the "boss" of her more reserved husband, whom she ultimately left for another man. "This was not Miss Submissive. This was not Little Miss Robot, this girl," he said.

Under the state's theory, Bugden argued, any religious figure or psychologist who counseled someone to stay in a bad relationship could become an accomplice to any violence that might ensue.

Belnap contended that the law held that Jeffs must be convicted. "Mr. Bugden wants you to ignore the law," Belnap said.

But Bugden argued that the state was abusing the law. The unusual charge against Jeffs has been used just once before, to put a man in prison for marrying his 13-year-old daughter to a 48-year-old man.

"They didn't have the courage to charge him with the real crime," Bugden said of Jeffs. "Instead, they dropped a nuclear bomb on the FLDS community."

--

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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