Warren Jeffs Remains Mute as Sex Trial Begins

VIDEO: Sect leader will be tried for alleged assault of two underage girls.
Share
Copy

The sexual assault trial against Warren Jeffs got off to an unusual start after the polygamist religious leader fired his entire defense team and then began a silent-treatment defense of his own, declining to make an opening statement, issue a plea or question witnesses.

The prosecutors trying Jeffs on charges he sexually assaulted two children, moved quickly forward yesterday on the trial's first day, calling five witnesses and giving insight into their case.

"You will hear and see evidence that as a result of sexual activity a child was conceived, and from the DNA evidence you will be able to determine that Warren Steed Jeffs is the father of this child," Assistant Texas Attorney General Eric Nichols told the jury in the San Angelo, Texas, courtroom where the trial is being held.

The prosecution also told jurors they have an audio tape of a sexual encounter between the 55-year-old Jeffs and a 12-year-old girl, and DNA evidence showing he impregnated a 15-year-old girl.

Jeffs , the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, is charged with two counts of sexual assault of a child, allegedly for sexually assaulting two underage girls in his sect and forcing them both into a "spiritual marriage."

The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. He faces a separate trial on a bigamy charge in October.

Jeffs' more than 10,000 followers across North America see him as a prophet who serves as God's spokesman on earth. The sect Jeffs leads broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church 72 years ago.

Sect teachings emphasize that polygamy is the key to exaltation in heaven, and that young girls and women are to be obedient to their husbands and serve them "mind, body and soul" to achieve salvation in the afterlife.

The only time the courtroom heard from the polygamist religious leader Thursday was a bizarre diatribe in which Jeffs spoke in sermon-like tones for 25 minutes on how his attorneys could not present a "pure defense."

"I have trained my defense, but they were unable to do what I said. I am presenting the need for true justice to be presented, and for the truth to come out," he said.

"Part of the frustration that he expressed in court was that the lawyers don't know as much about the history of the FLDS as he does," said ABC News' legal analyst Dan Abrams said today on "Good Morning America."

"That really became the driving force with him deciding to do this himself," Abrams said.

Jeffs' Own, Silent Defense

"I have released all my counsel," Jeffs told the judge overseeing his case, Judge Barbara Walther, earlier on Thursday, just as opening statements in his trial were about to begin. "I desire to represent myself."

Walther allowed him to represent himself but insisted on the trial moving forward, and warned Jeffs of what he was undertaking.

"It's not as easy as it looks on TV, Mr. Jeffs," she said. "You're on your own."

Jeffs responded, "I feel this is an injustice being performed," and said letting the case continue meant not allowing "true justice to be served, which is the purpose of the court of law in a nation that professes true justice be served," before falling silent for the remainder of the day's proceedings.

Jeffs sat alone at the defense table and said nothing, even as it came time for him to present his opening statement.

He remained silent, with his head bowed and his hands in his lap, as the prosecution questioned their witnesses, including police officers and investigators who described collecting the DNA evidence the prosecution says they will use against him.

Jeffs has switched attorneys frequently since his arrest, totaling a roster of seven attorneys who have appeared on his behalf since December, and leading to a six-month delay to the start of his trial.

"The stakes are very high for Mr. Jeffs," Abrams told "GMA." "In almost all cases here someone decided to represent him or herself, it usually doesn't end well."

Judge Walther herself expressed frustration with Jeffs' moves on Thursday, telling the defendant, "your request for additional time can only be considered as an attempt to further delay these proceedings and manipulate this court."

"Mr. Jeffs, the court is not going to recess these proceedings to let you go to law school," she said, while also warning him that "this is a predicament of your own making," and "I urge you not to follow this course of action."

Judge Walther's ruling, though allowing Jeffs to be his own defense, also stipulated that Jeffs' counsel would not be allowed to fully withdraw from the case. His defense attorneys are to remain "available," meaning that one attorney will have to remain present in court each day as "standby counsel."

Jeffs' former attorneys agreed that Deric Walpole would remain in Texas as Jeffs' "standby counsel." The ruling means, however, that Walpole will not be able to provide advice or counsel to Jeffs unless he asks.

The Associated Press reports Jeffs had been financing his rotating, often high-profile defense team through an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.

2008 Raid Spurred Charges

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.

The seven sect members whose trials have ended before Jeffs' even began were convicted of crimes including sexual assault and bigamy and are now serving prison sentences ranging from six to 75 years.

Jeffs' defense lawyers lost a series of fights before the trial even began in their efforts 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.

High Profile Case As Jeffs' Grip on Followers Remains Firm

The complicated nature of the case was highlighted in the jury selection process as well, which took days to finally compose a jury of 10 women, two men and two alternates, a man and a woman.

Jury selection is of special focus in Texas where state law allows juries to set the penalty for those they convict, and the high-profile associated with Jeffs forced the selection process to last even longer than usual.

Jeffs has gained worldwide notoriety for having a reported 70 wives and leading the sect's 10,000 members who live largely along the border of Utah and Arizona.

The hoax phone call and raid that precipitated the current charges and trial against Jeffs also thrust allegations of widespread child abuse at the polygamous sect into the national spotlight as television cameras captured images of women in 19th-century dresses and hairdos filing out of the compound.

A total of 207 people appeared for the second day of jury selection held earlier this week, but State District Judge Barbara Walther excused 120 of those potential jurors after most said they could not presume Jeffs' innocence.

And even as Jeffs' trial begins, he is believed to still have a firm grip on the sect and the lives of thousands of his followers, including the women he stands accused of assaulting.

Jeffs' followers see him as a prophet who serves as God's spokesman on earth. The sect Jeffs leads broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church 72 years ago.

As prophet, Jeffs paired the community's girls and women with the men he said God told him in revelations were meant to be married. Sect teachings emphasize that young girls and women are to be obedient to their husbands and serve them "mind, body and soul" to achieve salvation in the afterlife.

Two Texas sheriffs confirmed to ABC News that Jeffs spent $23,000 on phone cards in five months, leading to beliefs he is still in complete control of the church. The sheriff officials said they believe Jeffs is "directing" church members over the phone.

The two alleged victims in the case are not expected to testify, but 76 other women, all among Jeffs' followers, have reportedly been called to the stand.

"These people will not testify unless they are apprehended by law enforcement and dragged kicking and screaming into court," Mike Watkiss, a reporter with Arizona news network KTVK, told ABC News.

"I don't think his incarceration has in anyway diminished his status," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...