Opening statements are expected to begin this afternoon in the Utah trial of Warren Jeffs, the leader of a desert-based polygamous community, who is accused of forcing a 14-year-old girl to have sex with her 19-year-old cousin.
Jeffs, 51, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with two counts of rape by accomplice. The accuser testified at a preliminary hearing that Jeffs had insisted that if she didn't marry and have sex with her older cousin, she risked her own salvation.
One of the key tenets of FLDS, as it's known locally, is the belief that the group's men must have at least three wives to achieve salvation in the afterlife. Women in the sect seek salvation by submitting unquestioningly to their husbands, fathers and Jeffs, their prophet, according to published teachings and law enforcement officials. Arranged marriages between male church elders and young teenage girls have long been commonplace, say critics and former members of the sect.
"I think a lot of people think of this as a polygamy case or a religious case, but this case is really about child abuse," Sam Brower told ABC News. Brower, a private investigator hired by a number of former sect members who have claimed in civil lawsuits that Jeffs' abused them, has been investigating sect activities for four years.
"A 14-year-old little girl that was placed into an illegal sham marriage, an incestuous marriage with her first cousin. This case is about child abuse," Brower said.
Hundreds of jurors — many of them apparently sympathetic to the FLDS — were queried before lawyers could agree on a pool of 28, which will be winnowed down to eight jurors and four alternates this morning.
The case is fraught with emotion and seemingly painful familial schisms, pitting wives against husbands and brothers against sisters. According to a witness list, the accuser's father, brother and two sisters are testifying for the government, while her mother and another brother and sister are listed as potential defense witnesses.
Jeffs was a fugitive from the law for nearly two years after failing to appear in court to answer a civil lawsuit accusing him of sodomizing his then-5-year-old nephew, Brent Jeffs, the son of Warren Jeffs' brother Ward. Named one of the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives in the fall of 2005, he was apprehended during a traffic stop near Las Vegas late last summer.
While prosecutors have taken pains to point out that polygamy is not on trial, the state's longtime tolerance for the practice seems ever present, looming just beneath the surface of any discussions of Jeffs and his followers.
Polygamy is a felony in Utah, but with an estimated 20,000 practicing polygamists — many headquartered in this remote southwestern corner of the state — state and local prosecutors have long been reluctant to enforce that law.
During juror questioning Wednesday, the judge in the Jeffs' case characterized polygamy as a form of civil disobedience, comparable to the civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s.
"The concern that we have is the fact that Mr. Jeffs is a leader of a group that has decided to engage in what might be termed civil disobedience … can't be a focus of concern to the jury," he said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. State District Judge James Shumate went on to compare the sect's actions to blacks who "refused to sit in the back of the bus."