10 Nov 2010

FLDS defendant's take note: Religious freedom and consent of minors in 'spiritual marriages' are no defense to crime of sexual assault

The Salt Lake Tribune - November 11, 2009

Just desserts

Preying on the young |  Tribune Editorial

A Texas jury gave Raymond Merril Jessop his just deserts. After finding the polygamist guilty of sexual assault of a child for bedding a "spiritual wife" when he was 33 and she was 16, the jurors sentenced him to 10 years in prison and an $8,000 fine.

Apparently, Texas juries have considerable latitude when they determine sentences, and we can't say where this particular penalty fits in relation to those handed out by other juries for similar sexual assaults in the Lone Star State. What we can say is that in our rough measure of justice, the magnitude of the sentence fits the crime. Jessop will be eligible for parole after serving five years of the sentence.

The defense argued during the sentencing phase of the trial that the prosecution had not provided any evidence that the crime included sexual violence or that it was not consensual. That skirts the whole point of this prosecution. When a sexual union involves a very young woman -- the victim was 15 when she was "married" to Jessop -- and a much older man in a theocratic system that emphasizes patriarchal power and unquestioning obedience to male authority, it is doubtful that the term consent has much meaning for a young woman.

Under the teachings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the sect of which both Jessop and his young plural wife are members, a woman who is given to a man in marriage by her spiritual leader and who questions either his authority or the priesthood authority of her spouse puts her immortal soul in jeopardy. This system can reduce women to sexual chattel.

That said, we continue to have reservations about the raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas in April 2008 that gave rise to this and other prosecutions. The appeal of the Jessop conviction may bring rulings by higher courts in Texas on whether the evidence from that raid, which was based on a bogus phone tip about a young woman in distress, was tainted by the false foundation for the state's searches and the breadth of the resulting seizures.

Procedural questions aside, however, we believe that justice was served by this prosecution, the conviction and the sentence.

The whole notion of pressing young women into polygamous sexual unions with much older men is abhorrent, and any state which respects the rights of the young, the vulnerable and the brainwashed should prosecute it.

In our view, there is no question that this is a crime of sexual violence which cannot be justified or explained away by reliance on the constitutional rights of religious freedom.
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