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First trial is underway in raid of Texas polygamist compound

Raymond Merrill Jessop, 38, is charged with sexual assault of a minor, having allegedly fathered her child. Prosecutors argue Jessop's marriage to the girl is not legal in Texas.

October 29, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

ELDORADO, TEXAS — The first criminal prosecution stemming from a controversial raid on a polygamous sect's compound here began Wednesday with a state prosecutor telling jurors he would prove that a key member of the group illegally had sex with a 16-year-old girl.

Raymond Merrill Jessop, now 38, is charged with sexual assault on a minor, allegedly having fathered a child with the daughter of the sect's self-styled prophet, Warren Jeffs. The girl was one of Jessop's wives, but prosecutors argue that the marriage is not legal in Texas.

"We will ask you to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Raymond Merrill Jessop is guilty of sexual assault on a woman less than half his age," Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric Nichols told the jury of eight men and four women in a brief opening statement.

Under Texas law, someone can be convicted of sexual assault of a minor, even if the relationship was consensual, if the victim is younger than 17 and not lawfully married to the assailant.

Defense attorney Mark Stevens countered that the state did not have enough evidence to prove a crime had occurred.

"In this country, we don't try people based on their clothes or their hairstyles. And we don't try people on their beliefs or the churches they worship in," he said. "I believe if we stick to the facts and the evidence in this case, that Raymond will do just fine."

Neither side mentioned the explosive circumstances that brought Jessop -- whose father is a top leader of the sect -- to court.

In April 2008, Texas authorities launched a massive raid on the Yearning For Zion ranch, a compound that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was building outside the small town of Eldorado. The FLDS, a breakaway sect not recognized by the Mormon Church, believes that polygamy brings glorification in heaven.

Officials said they were responding to a call for help from a girl who expected to become a child bride. They removed more than 400 children from the compound, saying it was for the youths' safety.

But the call turned out to be a hoax.

Appellate judges questioned whether Texas had a right to hold the children, and all eventually were returned to the FLDS. There was growing criticism of the operation from civil libertarians, religious freedom groups and officials in Utah who in 2007 had prosecuted Jeffs for overseeing the marriage of a 16-year girl to her older cousin. Jeffs is serving a life prison term for his conviction in Utah as an accomplice to rape.

Texas authorities countered that they were trying to stop the sect from taking root in Eldorado and acting to protect children. Authorities took DNA samples to prove that men in the sect were impregnating underage girls, and they charged 12 sect members with various crimes.

Prosecutors have said that blood tests prove Jessop is the father of the alleged victim's daughter and that she was conceived in November 2004, when her mother was 16 and Jessop was 33. Jessop, they said, has nine wives.

At the time of the raid, there was widespread local distrust of the FLDS. Selecting a jury in Schleicher County, which has about 2,800 residents, was difficult.

The process started Monday, when 153 prospective jurors, including 17 FLDS members, came to a community center that was converted into a courthouse for the trial. On Wednesday, after lawyers and Judge Barbara Walther laboriously interviewed 85 prospective jurors, a panel was seated. All the FLDS members were dismissed.

The trial is expected to take two weeks. Testimony is scheduled to begin today.

Walther, who is based in neighboring Tom Green County, acknowledged that it would be difficult for jurors to avoid hearing about the matter in such a tiny community. She admonished them against any conversations about the case or viewing coverage of it, and extended her warning to some newer forms of media.

"No blogging, no Twittering, no Facebooking," she said.

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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