14 Sep 2007

Opening arguments made in polygamist leader's trial

Daphne Bramham, CanWest News Service

September 14, 2007

ST. GEORGE, Utah - Give yourself over, mind, body and soul to your husband.

That's what prosecutors say Warren Jeffs, the 51-year-old leader of the largest polygamist group in North America, advised a 14-year-old girl who had earlier got down on her knees and begged not to have to go through with the arranged marriage to her 19-year-old first cousin.

Mr. Jeffs allegedly told the girl that her heart was in the wrong place; she had a duty to go forward and marry because it was God's will.

It's those admonitions that have put him in court facing two charges of rape as an accomplice and, if he's found guilty, the prospect of anywhere from five years to life in prison. Polygamy is not at issue in the case.

The arranged marriage of the girl and her first cousin was a monogamous one. The girl's age is also not at issue.

The charge is rape, but it is not what was once known as "statutory rape" involving sex with a child. The age of sexual consent in Utah (as in Canada) is 14.

The backdrop to the alleged rape includes polygamy, the control that Jeffs exercises over the 6,000 to 8,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (including about 600 in Bountiful, B.C.) and what the church's members are taught.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect that has no affiliation with the Mormon church.

On the girl's wedding day in April, 2001, prosecutor Brock Belnap told jurors, "she left as a child and came back expected to move into a bedroom with her adult husband. That night she put her pyjamas over her clothes and pretended to be asleep while her husband had a shower."

A few weeks later, she went to Mr. Jeffs, told him that she was being touched in ways that she didn't like and that her husband was doing things that made her uncomfortable. Mr. Belnap said Mr. Jeffs told her, "'Repent. Go home and give yourself mind, body and soul to your husband.' And she did."

But Tara Isaacson, one of Mr. Jeffs' three attorneys, told the five men and seven women on the jury that the defence position is simple: "[The alleged victim] was not raped and Warren Jeffs absolutely did not aid in the commission of that crime."

Ms. Isaacson said the husband -- who has never been charged with rape -- will testify that he sent her love letters and flowers and that intercourse was always consensual. Other defence witnesses will testify that the girl was "no passive young girl," Ms. Isaacson said.

Rather, she was "feisty, strongwilled and unafraid to speak her mind. She had no problem telling you where to go."

They will testify about their own counselling sessions with Mr. Jeffs and what they understood from his teachings about marriage and marital relations. Both sides put into evidence some of Mr. Jeffs' sermons.

Ms. Isaacson read from one Mr. Jeffs gave in 1999: "A man should only have marital relations with a wife if she invites it."

Before they reach their verdict, she said jurors need to be convinced that the girl was raped. Then they must ask themselves: "What did Mr. Jeffs have to do with what was going on in the bedroom? Did he know that she was forced to have sexual intercourse? Because what happened between these two is a focal point in the case."

The victim, who is now 21, began her testimony mid-afternoon, setting the context for her marriage within the FLDS tradition and providing background about her education.

Security at the courthouse is tight. Mr. Jeffs was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List for four months after being a fugitive for nearly two years.

Even if Mr. Jeffs is acquitted, he must still face eight charges related to arranged marriages of under-age girls in Arizona and two federal counts of fleeing from prosecution.


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