26 Jan 2011

Texas juries have convicted 5 Mormon fundamentalists from cult compound, 2 others pled guilty, leader Jeffs next to be tried

The Dallas Morning News - December 3, 2010

Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs faces prosecutors who are unbeaten in cases

Paul J. Weber, The Associated Press

BIG LAKE, Texas – Extradited to Texas two years after being indicted, polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs will be facing Texas prosecutors who haven't lost a criminal case against his followers since the 2008 raid of his Yearning for Zion ranch.

In the rural courts near the YFZ Ranch where Jeffs is considered a prophet, his followers have been convicted by juries – only one of which deliberated more than two hours.

Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was quietly extradited to Texas this week from Utah, where he was charged with rape as an accomplice for his role in an underage marriage.

He remained jailed in Big Lake on Thursday, charged with felony bigamy, aggravated sexual assault and assault.

The 2008 raid swept more than 400 children into protective custody, and left a dozen men in the church facing charges that include sexual assault and bigamy.

Seven of Jeffs' followers have been prosecuted since last year, and all were convicted or pleaded no contest. The sentences have ranged from six to 75 years.

"The evidence has been clear and convincing to juries," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office, which is prosecuting the cases.

Jeffs is scheduled for trial Jan. 24 on the aggravated sexual assault charge. Prosecutors plan to try him separately on the other charges.

Neither Jeffs, 55, nor his church have spoken publicly since he arrived at a San Angelo airport late Tuesday, escorted by the Texas Rangers. He was arraigned Wednesday and is being held without bail.

Jeffs told state District Judge Barbara Walther he would "need more time" to find an attorney in Texas after appearing without counsel at his arraignment.

Whoever represents him may have a difficult task ahead. Juries in Schleicher County, where the 1,700-acre YFZ ranch sits on the West Texas plains, and neighboring Tom Green County have so far been loath to spare FLDS members.

Of the cases prosecuted, juries swiftly returned convictions of sexual assault of a child in five of them. Two defendants pleaded no contest and were sentenced without trial.

The FLDS, a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven. Historically centered around the Arizona-Utah line, the sect bought a ranch near Eldorado and began building multifamily homes, a dairy and an enormous limestone temple about seven years ago.

FLDS attorneys have urged jurors in earlier cases not to be distracted by the polygamist group's prairie-style clothing, braids or religious beliefs. They've called the prosecution a persecution. And they've taken aim at the volumes of journal writings, photos and other evidence seized by authorities during the raid of the ranch.

None have swayed a verdict in their favor so far.

Patrick Metze, a professor at the Texas Tech University School of Law who is familiar with the FLDS attorneys, said the jury pool in West Texas may be growing tired of the cases.

In the last trial of an FLDS member, jurors deliberated the longest and handed out a shorter sentence. Keith William Dutson Jr., 25, was convicted in November of sexual abuse of a child. Prosecutors said he was in his early twenties when he took a wife who was 16.

Jurors met for about five hours, by far the longest deliberation. His six-year prison sentence is the shortest punishment to an FLDS member in Texas.

Jeffs' case "won't be an easy trial for the state," Metze said.

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