9 Nov 2010

Judge in FLDS sex assault trial allows expert testimony on DNA paternity evidence

The Houston Chronicle - October 30, 2009

Analyst: FLDS defendant likely fathered girl's child

Lab reports a 99.9% match on DNA tests


ELDORADO — A DNA analyst testified Friday that tests shows a member of a polygamist sect on trial for sexual assault is 99.9 percent likely to have fathered the child born to an underage girl.

Raymond Merril Jessop, 38, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is being tried in the 2004 sexual assault of a child. The girl, who also belongs to the sect, was 16 years old at the time of the alleged assault.

Two separate samples of DNA taken from the girl and her daughter were sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center along with a blood sample from Jessop.

Forensic analyst Amy Smuts testified DNA from the three showed Jessop was a 99.9 percent match with the girl's daughter, who is now 4 years old.

Smuts testified during an expert testimony hearing. Such hearings are held outside the presence of a jury to determine whether an expert witness is qualified to testify before the jury.

State District Judge Barbara Walther decided to hold the hearing after trial testimony was brought to a halt during the first day of testimony. On Thursday, a juror's child had a fever of 103 degrees and flu-like symptoms. The jury is scheduled to return Monday morning.
Analysis challenged

Defense attorney Brandon Hudson challenged Smuts' analysis because the conclusion starts with a 50 percent prior probability that Jessop is the father. Hudson argued that such a percentage before the test is completed makes the test unfairly biased against his client.

Smuts testified that such a probability is an accepted practice. However, she could not point to any scientific reason as to why the 50 percent markup was used as a starting point.

“He's either the biological father or not,” she said.

Walther ruled late Friday that Smuts' testimony could be heard by the jury, according to the Eldorado Success.

The FLDS moved to Texas in 2002. In early April 2008, Texas Child Protective Services was notified of a caller to a San Angelo women's shelter who claimed to be a teen mother abused by an FLDS member. The call was later considered a hoax, but not before state officials entered the ranch and began removing 439 children, along with boxes of church records.

Jessop is the first of 12 FLDS men to be tried on criminal charges stemming from that raid. The breakaway Mormon sect practices polygamy. If convicted, Jessop faces up to 20 years in prison.

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San Angelo Standard-Times - October 30, 2009

FLDS TRIAL: Judge to let DNA expert testify in Jessop trial

Defense attempts to cast doubt on her credibility


SAN ANGELO, Texas — ELDORADO — DNA expert Amy Smuts became uncomfortably aware Friday in court that she couldn’t hold forth on Bayes’ theory, hasn’t read that book by Phillip Good or reviewed the latest important DNA case in Texas law.

But a judge ruled Smuts, a forensic analyst at a respected DNA lab, has the scientific chops to testify about paternity tests indicating a nearly 100 percent probability defendant Raymond Merril Jessop fathered a child with a 16-year-old in November 2004 at the Yearning for Zion Ranch.

Defense attorney Brandon Hudson nearly left teeth marks in the air Friday in his attempt to convince a judge Smuts wasn’t a qualified expert witness, and DNA tests that could persuade a jury to find his client guilty of child sexual assault weren’t exactly junk science — but they weren’t good science for this case.

For one thing, the FLDS community is close-knit, perhaps skewing the tests, Hudson said. Plus, the paternity testing in question was designed for civil court cases.

Smuts was on the stand most of an approximately 90-minute hearing while Hudson tried to prove to the judge the expert was anything but.

He swung from hammering at Smuts to being helpful — defense-lawyer style — in the makeshift 51st Judicial District courtroom in the Memorial Building.

The bespectacled Smuts, dressed in a light blue sweater, was flipping through her papers when Hudson volunteered: “I don’t mean this in any snarky or sarcastic way ... but I have the formula right here.”

The jury wasn’t present during the hearing, but Judge Barbara Walther said she anticipates beginning at 9 a.m. Monday with the seven-man, five-woman jury in attendance.

The judge dismissed the jury just before 3 p.m. Thursday because a juror’s child under 5 was running a high fever and might have swine flu.

Jessop, 38, and 11 other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints face criminal charges. Jessop is the first to go to trial, and evidence seized during a historic April 2008 raid at the YFZ Ranch is expected to weigh heavily in the prosecution’s mission to prove those charges.

If found guilty, Jessop faces two to 20 years in prison.

His hair parted neatly to the side, Jessop watched quietly as the fifth day of his trial unfolded. He showed no reactions during the hearing.

But one of Hudson’s statements earned a look from lead prosecutor Eric Nichols.

“There are always other possible suspects in every case your honor,” the defense attorney said.

The hearing might have been a routine skirmish in other trials, but in this case, it was a full-on battle. The DNA evidence is central to the prosecution’s mission to prove Jessop sexually assaulted an underage girl he’d taken as a “purported wife.” Prosecutors allege Jessop had one legal wife and eight “purported wives.”

He is charged with bigamy, but that charge will be tried separately.

As for Jessop possibly being related to the child’s father — and not the biological father, himself, Smuts said Jessop’s DNA had matched all 15 genetic markers — as a father’s would — with the child’s genetic material.

Smuts said scientists at the lab where she works — Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth — discussed altering the math that helps determine paternity because of the tight-knit FLDS community.

But they decided it wasn’t necessary, Smuts said.

Prosecutor Lisa Tanner told the judge Hudson was asking obscure questions of a DNA expert who didn’t have to “be able to trace the genesis” of every scientific theory in her work or know case law like a lawyer would.

Tanner said Smuts had already fulfilled the requirements “ad nauseam” to show the science was generally accepted and the results of the tests could be duplicated.

The judge’s ruling showed she agreed, and it was a victory for the prosecution.

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Star-Telegram - Fort Worth, Texas October 30, 2009

Illness of juror's child suspends trial stemming from raid of polygamist sect

By MICHELLE ROBERTS | The Associated Press

ELDORADO — The first criminal trial stemming from the raid of a polygamist sect’s West Texas ranch was abruptly halted Thursday after a juror’s child came down with a high fever and flu-like symptoms.

State District Judge Barbara Walther recessed the sexual-assault trial of Raymond Jessop indefinitely, saying a juror’s child is younger than 5 and may have swine flu. She did not indicate when the trial may resume.

It took 2  1/2 days and the largest pool in Schleicher County history to seat a 12-member jury and two alternates in the first of the criminal cases stemming from a raid that catapulted this tiny town into the spotlight as women and children in prairie dresses were taken off the Yearning For Zion Ranch.

Jessop, charged with sexual assault of a child, is the first of 12 men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to face a criminal trial in Texas. Authorities say he was married to a girl who was 16 when she became pregnant.

Jurors began hearing testimony Thursday morning. They heard only about four hours — primarily about how and where evidence was collected in the weeklong raid in April 2008.

The first witness, Texas Rangers Sgt. Nick Hanna, testified that he found the young woman in question living with four other women and numerous children at a log-cabin-style house.

Jessop was not there, but he was considered a suspect early on, even as state officials struggled with how to handle the 439 children they took from the ranch and placed in state custody. Hanna acknowledged under cross-examination that Jessop was considered a potential suspect as the raid was concluding and that he went to San Angelo to collect a blood sample from him.

Other witnesses Thursday testified that DNA was taken from the young woman, now 21, and from her daughter, now 4.

Authorities seized three trailer loads of evidence from the residences and temple at the ranch, and piles of documents, disks and books were stacked onto the ledge of the witness stand for identification during the testimony Thursday — an indication of how document-heavy the case against Jessop is.

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said Thursday that the piles of documents prove that prosecutors don’t have a victim.

"Ninety percent of the time, you’ll have a girl up there saying, 'This terrible thing happened to me.’ The state doesn’t have that," he said. "You have a state-generated victim."

Under Texas law, generally no one under 17 can consent to sex with an adult. If Jessop is convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors say Jessop had nine wives, including one daughter of jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs.

Jessop faces a separate bigamy charge, but that case is to be tried later.

The young woman in the case was 16 when she gave birth to a daughter at the ranch in 2005, prosecutors say. The girl was in labor for days but was not taken to the hospital because of fears about possible prosecution, according to church documents seized at the ranch. She safely delivered a daughter.

Defense attorney Mark Stevens has said prosecutors will not be able to offer evidence that a crime was committed in Schleicher County.

The location is critical because prosecutors must be able to show that the state has jurisdiction in the case.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect that is not recognized by the Mormon church.

It has historically been based along the Arizona-Utah line, but church members bought a 1,700-acre ranch outside Eldorado about six years ago and began building sprawling homes and a four-story limestone temple visible from the highway through town.

Jeffs was arrested in 2006 and convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah for arranging an underage marriage there.

He awaits trial on similar charges in Arizona before he can be tried on allegations of sexual assault of a child and bigamy in Texas.

The Mormon church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

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