21 Nov 2007

Polygamy leader Jeffs sentenced to prison

Reuters Canada - Nov 20, 2007

By Tim Gaynor

ST. GEORGE, Utah (Reuters) - U.S. polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed prophet of a breakaway Mormon sect, was sentenced on Tuesday to 10 years to life in prison for forcing a 14-year-old to marry her first cousin.

The leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, received five years to life for each of two felony convictions on charges he was an accomplice to rape. The sentences will be served consecutively and a state board of pardons will ultimately determine how much time he spends in prison.

Jeffs spent 15 months on the run and was on the FBI's Most Wanted list before his arrest in August 2006. He was convicted in September.

Looking gaunt, Jeffs showed no emotion when the sentence was read and he declined to address the Utah court which was packed with his supporters and opponents.

The victim, who is now 21 and has remarried, was in the front row and addressed the judge before sentencing.

"Jeffs and his influence over me, as a 14-year-old girl, affected me and my family in so many ways," said Elissa Wall, her voice trembling with emotion.

She said she trusted the court would give him "the sentence that he deserves and that some good would come from this." Jeffs forced her to marry her 19-year-old cousin despite her objections.

Revered as infallible by his followers and reviled as power-crazed and delusional by others, Jeffs, 51, led some 7,500 FLDS members in the borderlands of Utah and Arizona.

Women members of the church wear long, pioneer-style dresses, have their hair in long braided plaits and are brought up to be submissive to their husbands. Church members are generally suspicious of outsiders.

The Jeffs trial riveted Utah which has a majority Mormon population, many of whom consider polygamy an embarrassment.

The practice of taking multiple wives was an early tenet of the Mormon faith, although it was banned in 1890 when Utah sought to become a state. The FLDS -- which has no ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are called Mormons –-- is the largest group still practicing polygamy in the state.


Dissident former church member Flora Jessop, who fled a forced marriage to a cousin arranged by the FLDS, welcomed the sentencing as a start. Jeffs faces similar sex abuse charges in Arizona as well as federal charges.

"Thousands of children can sleep safer tonight with Jeffs in jail," Jessop said outside the court house.

"It is a positive first step, although much more needs to be done ... to protect women and children who want out of the community," she added.

The sentencing came days after the court unsealed documents that revealed that Jeffs attempted suicide in jail in January and told his brother he was "not the prophet" -- revelations potentially damaging to the FLDS.

Sources with insight into the group said the disclosures and the sentence were unlikely to devastate the closed world of the church, where members are told not to watch television or read news on the Internet.

But Benjamin Bistline, a historian of polygamy in Colorado City, the FLDS' stronghold in Arizona, said it might help end the practice of forced marriages for minors.

"They'll never get rid of polygamy in Utah, never," Bistline said. "What they will stop is the underage marriages." (Editing by Alan Elsner)


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