Warren Jeffs accuser: Conviction reversal hurts victims
by Dennis Wagner | The Arizona Republic
A child bride who became the government's key witness against sect leader Warren Jeffs said a Utah Supreme Court decision this week overthrowing the polygamous prophet's conviction on rape charges will damage child victims and embolden leaders in the religious community on the Arizona Strip.
"This puts the power back in Warren's hands tenfold," said Elissa Wall, who was 14 when she first married.
In a phone interview from her Utah home, Wall, now 24, said she fears the impact on children inside the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who may be looking for help.
"What's going to happen to them?" she asked. "What's going to happen to any small hope they may have had?"
The criminal case against Jeffs was based on a legal argument that as church administrator, he directed and performed the 2001 marriage of Wall to her 19-year-old cousin, Allen Steed, knowing that the result would be sexual assault. Jeffs faced a parallel indictment in Arizona, also with Wall as the victim and primary witness, but Mohave County prosecutors dismissed the case last month.
Jeffs had been serving consecutive prison sentences of five years to life and was facing extradition to Texas, where he is charged with the statutory rape of one of his own child wives.
The Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that jurors in 2007 were given improper instructions leading to the guilty verdict on two counts of rape as an accomplice. The Washington County Attorney's Office has not announced whether Jeffs will be retried on those charges.
Wall said she was stunned when her attorney notified her of the reversal: "It was this take-your-breath-away, gut-wrenching feeling with the question: Now what? Are we going to have to do this again? And I just started to cry."
The FLDS sect, not affiliated with the mainstream Mormon faith, holds that plural marriage is required to achieve the highest place in heaven. Jeffs' attorneys have argued that polygamy and child weddings are religious acts protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The Arizona Republic typically does not publish rape-victim names unless they consent. Wall wrote a book about her experience and has done numerous media interviews.
Wall, who is remarried with two children, said she is not qualified to dispute legal findings but believes the court ruling will strengthen the sect and victimize its children.
Jeffs remains in custody at a Utah prison. His attorney in Arizona, Michael Piccarreta, said this week that jury instructions are one of two major issues facing prosecutors: During the first trial, Piccarreta said, Wall colluded with a midwife to create false documentation of a miscarriage and misrepresented that record on the witness stand. As a result, he said, government lawyers will have to overcome credibility problems with their chief witness.
Wall said the allegation reflects a defense tactic, not reality. She said she's reviewed her sworn statements with prosecutors and is prepared to testify again if necessary. "I never gave false testimony in trial, none whatsoever," she said.
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The Salt Lake Tribune - July 29, 2010
OPINION - Jeffs ruling
Polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs could, and we believe should, be back in court soon. The Utah Supreme Court granted Jeffs’ appeal and ordered a new trial on charges he was an accomplice in the rape of a teenage girl who was only 14 when Jeffs married her to her first cousin. It was a so-called spiritual marriage in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which Jeffs rules as president and prophet.
In 2007 we applauded Jeffs’ conviction. Despite this week’s court ruling, we still believe he should be held accountable for using his position of absolute authority over young girls to coerce them into plural marriages and order them to have sexual intercourse against their will.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff should carefully consider the ramifications of allowing Jeffs to go free. If Shurtleff decides against a second trial, he should, as he has proposed, push for a change in the state rape statute to better apply to any polygamous leaders who force young girls into illegal marriages. When the statute was written, such crimes in polygamous communities were not the focus.
Girls of such an age, raised in isolation and totally dominated by men, are too innocent to give consent to having sex, and that innocence is too easily manipulated by all-powerful FLDS leaders.
At the trial, Wall testified she knew nothing about sex. She said she did not tell anyone she had been raped because she did not know what the word meant.
In overturning Jeffs’ conviction, the court unanimously ruled that 5th District Judge James Shumate erred in his instructions to the jury. Shumate rejected a defense request to instruct jurors that in order to convict, they must find that in performing the marriage of Elissa Wall and Allen Steed, Jeffs intended for a rape to occur.
The justices agreed with the defense that Jeffs could not be considered an accomplice to a rape that had not been proven to have occurred and that the young husband would be the guilty party, not Jeffs, if Wall had been raped.
Wall clearly did not want to marry Steed. She testified she hated him and did not want him to touch her. She begged, but Jeffs and Wall’s family ignored her pleas. The jury apparently believed Jeffs held such power over Wall that she really had no choice.
The legal issues involved in prosecuting an FLDS leader are complicated. But Utah cannot continue to allow young girls to be coerced to have sex in illegal marriages no matter what the religious doctrine of the sect that condones it. That is, in effect, turning a blind eye to child abuse.
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