13 Sep 2007

Witness list at Jeffs trial almost a family affair

Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

ST. GEORGE, Utah - Mothers will be pitted against daughters, sons against fathers when the trial of Warren Jeffs, the polygamous prophet, begins possibly on Thursday.

The splitting of families on the witness lists echoes the fissure Jeffs has caused in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) and also the deep and unbridgeable gap between those who still believe in the FLDS and those who don't.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church that has about 8,000 members in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., a thousand or more in Eldorado, Tex., and about 600 followers in Bountiful, B.C.

FLDS members continue to practise polygamy and believe only men with multiple wives enter the highest realm of heaven. They believe their prophet speaks directly to God and gets revelations about who should marry whom.

Jeffs is charged with two counts of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who he assigned to marry her 19-year-old first cousin. After the marriage, Jeffs is alleged to have counselled the husband on several occasions to impregnate his child bride.

He is not on trial for polygamy, or for exercising absolute control over his followers. But it would be impossible for the state to make its case without establishing the context within which the assignment marriage was made and establishing in what kind of a community the 14-year-old was born, raised and educated.

The victim -- known as MJ in the court -- is now in her early 20s. In addition to her testimony, the prosecutors have listed as potential witnesses two of her sisters, her father and her brother.

The defence have her mother and another sister on their list, presumably to contradict what MJ and the other family members say.

MJ's husband -- the man who allegedly raped her -- is also on the defence list as is the husband of one sister whose testimony will support MJ's allegations.

The prosecutors have Carolyn Jessop on their list. She was a teacher and plural wife of Merril Jessop, one of Jeffs' most trusted advisers. With all of her eight children, Jessop escaped from the FLDS-controlled town of Hildale/Colorado City in the middle of the night.

Her oldest daughter, Betty Jessop, is on the defence list. Betty went back to live in Hildale/Colorado City after her 18th birthday earlier this year. Presumably, Jeffs's lawyers will use her testimony to try to counteract what her mother says.

Richard Holm, a former city councillor in Hildale, is also expected to testify for the prosecution. He was excommunicated by Jeffs, stripped of his wives and children as well as his home, which was built on church-owned property. Holm has already testified in a couple of Arizona cases involving the assignment marriages of underaged girls.

Two of his sons and a daughter, who remain members of the FLDS, are on the defence list. So is the Arizona lawyer who defended the eight men charged in the cases where Holm gave testimony.

The prosecutors have listed 18 potential witnesses, while the defence has 70. It's a sign of how small the familial circle is in Hildale/Colorado City that of the 88 potential witnesses, 17 Jessops, 13 Barlows and four Blackmores (relatives of Winston Blackmore, who is the prophet to about 700 people in Bountiful).

When the trial will begin remains unclear because of the slow and painstaking process of selecting a jury. So far, 20 people have been deemed qualified to serve on the jury.

Fifteen more will be interviewed this morning as the lawyers try to get a pool of 28 from which to select eight jurors and four alternates.

One of the problems in finding jurors is the case has such a high profile. But the larger problem is that in southern Utah almost everybody has an opinion about the FLDS, polygamy and assignment marriages because it's been going on since the mid-1800s.

So, prospective jurors are being interviewed one at a time by the lawyers and the judge.

The interviews average about 15 minutes each.

What's somewhat surprising is even though there has been so much media coverage, some say they know little or nothing about it. One prospective juror smiled at Jeffs and told him she was sorry she didn't know more about him.

"I honestly thought that was the guy," she added, pointing at one of the prosecutors, Ryan Shaum.

She also drew a laugh from the lawyers and a wan smile from Jeffs when she said she was comfortable with the idea of arranged marriages. Her grandmother had one. Her bride price was one goat.

In addition to probing people's beliefs about some of the key issues, the lawyers and the judge spent some time explaining and then questioning people on one of the most fundamental principles of the justice system -- the defendant's innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In at least one of the interviews, a woman was asked whether she could do that.

She looked at Jeffs and held his gaze. "I am willing to begin the trial believing that you are innocent," she said.

Jeffs dipped his head slightly and whispered, "Thanks."


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