The judge overseeing the sexual assault trial of polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs today denied his request to dismiss his legal team, and warned the accused sex offender of the consequences of dumping his legal team.
Judge Barbara Walther called a brief recess after Jeffs made his request in court this morning as opening statements in the much-anticipated trial were about to begin.
"I have released all my counsel," Jeffs said in the San Angelo, Texas, courtroom where the trial is being held. "I desire to represent myself."
Walther returned to the bench to warn Jeffs of the consequences of not having a talented and trained legal team. Jeffs agreed and maintained his decision, but asked for more time to prepare. The judge denied this request.
Jeffs has switched attorneys frequently since his arrest, totaling a roster of seven attorneys who have appeared on his behalf in recent months and leading to a six-month delay to the start of his trial.
Jeffs will now represent himself, but Judge Walther ruled to not allow Jeffs' counsel to withdraw. His defense attorneys are to remain "available," meaning that one attorney will have to remain present in court each day as "standby counsel." The attorney, however, will not be able to provide advice or counsel to Jeffs unless he asks.
The attorney shakeup today from Jeffs prompted yet another delay in the trial just as the court prepared to begin opening today statements after a final hearing for a motion by Jeffs' attorney to suppress evidence seized by authorities during his 2006 arrest at a traffic stop on a Nevada highway.
Jeffs , the 55-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), faces charges he sexually assaulted two underage girls, ages 17 and 12, both of whom he later married. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. He faces a separate trial on a bigamy charge in October.
In the trial, prosecutors are expected to tell the jury – composed of 10 women, two men and two alternates, a man and a woman – that Jeffs sexually assaulted the girls and forced them each into a "spiritual marriage." His defense was expected to counter that their client's religious freedoms were trampled.
During jury selection earlier in the week, Jeffs' lead attorney, Deric Walpole, had given a preview of his then-client's planned defense, saying, "my client's right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy."
Jeffs told Judge Walther today he believed his current team of lawyers could not truly represent his defense.
The Associated Press reports Jeffs is financing his rotating, often high-profile defense team through an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.
The charges Jeffs faces stem from an April 2008 police raid on a compound known as the "Yearning For Zion" ranch run by FLDS, an offshoot sect of the mainstream Mormon Church. The ranch is located outside Eldorado, Texas, a small town about 45 miles south of San Angelo.
A call to a domestic-abuse hotline spurred the raid which resulted in the removal of more than 400 children from their homes on the ranch compound. The call turned out to be a hoax, but the evidence collected led to the current charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men.
Jeffs' defense lawyers lost a series of fights Wednesday, denied by Judge Barbara Walther in three separate motions to throw out key evidence seized during the raid on the ranch.
Defense attorney Robert Udashen argued that the search warrant to raid the ranch should have never been granted because the call that prompted the raid was a hoax.
Texas police received multiple calls in the days before the 2008 raid from a woman claiming to be a 16-year-old who said she was being abused on the ranch.
Police later determined the call came from a Colorado woman who was not at Jeffs' ranch and who had a history of making false reports of sexual abuse, yet police still used that information to get the warrant to raid the ranch, Udashen argued.
Judge Walther ruled against Udashen's arguments, determining instead that the evidence gathered during the raid is permissible and should be presented to jurors because the warrant was still valid as authorities believed there was a victim who needed to be protected.