For author, the Jeffs story became personal
by Peg McEntee
First things first. Last week, author Jon Krakauer appeared on CNN and railed at the Utah Supreme Court’s reversal of Warren S. Jeffs’ 2007 convictions of rape as an accomplice.
So for Tuesday’s paper, I wrote a column about what he had said. Later, Krakauer and I talked, and he said he made a “stupid comment” when he blamed the high court’s “close ties to the LDS Church” and the “political basis” of the judgment.
“I apologize to the justices,” he said. “That was not fair.”
But he still believes the ruling, which means a new trial for Jeffs if prosecutors decide to go that way, was a “terrible decision.”
Jeffs was convicted of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin. She begged Jeffs not to make her do it, and after the “spiritual” wedding, begged to be released from it. The girl, now grown, claimed her husband had raped her, which led to the charges against Jeffs and his 2007 conviction.
The court agreed with defense claims that the trial judge refused to tell the jurors that to convict Jeffs, they had to find that he knew unwanted sex would take place and that he intended for a rape to occur.
Krakauer doesn’t buy it.
“In order to reverse this, they had to conclude that neglect to issue the proper instructions had a reasonable likelihood that it would affect the jury’s verdict,” he said. “I don’t think that standard was met.
“This was a good judge, a smart jury,” Krakauer said. “They understood who Warren Jeffs was, what his interest was in forcing [the girl] into that marriage.”
Krakauer has reasons behind his words. He’s been acutely interested in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints since, as he put it, he “stumbled through Short Creek in 1999.” (That settlement is now Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz.)
“I don’t pretend to be unbiased,” he said. “I’ve spent too much time with the victims” of Jeffs, considered the sect’s prophet and all-powerful leader.
In the early 2000s, Jeffs imposed strict rules on his people — no television, Internet, communication with outsiders. He exiled men he felt were not devout enough. And he broke up families, commonly taking a wife and children from one man and placing them with another.
Finally, when the law started catching up to him, Jeffs bolted, traveling around the country until his arrest in 2006. He was convicted in 2007.
All the while, Krakauer was investigating the FLDS in its home base and its outposts in Texas, South Dakota, Nevada and Colorado.
At one point, Krakauer took under his wing a “lost boy,” one of many Jeffs drove from the community. The boy is now 26 and like a “foster son to me” he said.
And while Krakauer said he’s trying to get away from his obsession with the sect, it’s tough. Living in Colorado, he said, “I hear stuff. Polygamists come through” to visit the young man.
Which is why, as he said, the Supreme Court decision was “crushing to me. I’m emotionally invested in these victims.”
By the way, I checked with Daniel Medwed, a law professor at the University of Utah and graduate of Harvard Law School. He said flawed jury instructions are a “common source” of an appellate court’s reversal of a conviction.
“The prosecution was flawed, and the charges were not quite a fit for the crimes,” he said
If it’s any comfort, Jeffs faces even more serious charges in Texas, where the sect built a community in Eldorado. Jeffs is charged with bigamy and aggravated assault related to his spiritual marriage to a 12-year-old girl. Another count of sexual abuse accuses Jeffs of fathering a child with a girl who was 14 at the time.
Krakauer thinks the evidence in that case “is bomb-proof, riveting and disgusting. I think things look really good there. Texas should and will prosecute.”
I know a thing or two about becoming obsessed with a story. In 2004, I became part of a team that investigated the FLDS for years to come. There were long days, and nights many of us could barely sleep.
I hope Jon Krakauer can find his way out of the FLDS story. He’s recently published a book about Pat Tillman, the former NFL standout and Army Ranger who died by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
As with the FLDS story, he said, “I’m emotionally invested.”
In his work and mine, that’s a given.
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