21 Oct 2010

FLDS seeks hearing to seal depositions, other documents

The Salt Lake Tribune - March 26, 2009

by Brooke Adams | Salt Lake Tribune

Attorneys for three FLDS members have asked a Texas judge to seal case files for polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs' daughter and bar public access to documents used in her hearings.

The motion filed Monday asks 51st District Judge Barbara Walther to hold a hearing to consider sealing Jan. 26 hearings for 17-year-old Teresa Jeffs and prohibit court clerks from allowing review or release of related deposition transcripts, exhibits, photographs, documents and other items.

It also asks Walther to bar the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, court-appointed child advocates, attorneys Natalie Malonis and Jonathon Davis and court clerks in Schleicher and Tom Green counties from disseminating the items.

The motion was filed by attorneys for Annette Jeffs, Teresa's mother; FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop; and Merril Jessop, bishop of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado. The ranch is home to members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and was the focus of a massive child welfare investigation last year.

Teresa and her brother were among 439 children kept in state custody for two months before higher court rulings sent them home. Malonis represented Teresa and Davis, her younger brother, until February, when their court cases were closed.

Malonis took depositions of Merril Jessop and Willie Jessop in January, introducing 23 documents as part of the proceedings.

The items included revelations and dictations given by Jeffs, family information records, business tax records, budget estimates for the sect's community in Utah and Arizona, letters and depositions from previous court cases.

Malonis shared an excerpt with the writer of a court-related blog. Transcripts were also sent anonymously to two newspapers in Texas.

The transcripts were placed in the public court files -- which the motion calls "stunning" given the allegations of sexual abuse and motions by Jeffs and the two Jessops to seal the case files.

While the hearing transcripts may be public, the other documents -- in particular, the depositions -- are not, based on a previous state appeals court and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the motion argues.

Malonis said the depositions became public record because "they cited the Fifth Amendment privilege and for me to compel their answers I had to certify the deposition questions, file them with the court and have a hearing."

Despite the fact some material is in the public domain, "there may be other photographs, documents or other tangible items" that should be protected, the motion says, and that could subject Teresa Jeffs and other family members to "the glare of public attention."

The public release of the items may impair fair trial rights of Merril Jessop, who is charged with conducting an illegal marriage at the ranch, it said, and "needlessly" embarrasses Willie Jessop, who is not a party to the case or charged with any criminal conduct.

It also violates the Texas Religious Freedom Act, the motion argues, because release of confidential instructions and revelations from lay members and sect prophet Jeffs "desecrates the divine, but also renders impossible the confidential communication of God's will among the faithful and has a chilling effect on the seeking and receiving of guidance in temporal and spiritual matters."

Walther denied a similar motion when she closed the cases in February, Malonis said.

"I don't understand the logic in resurrecting it," she said. "Aside from that, I'm not sure the court still has jurisdiction" after a 30-day period passes.

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