ST. GEORGE, Utah, Sept. 13, 2007 -- 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."
The notion of polygamy as a religious right dates back to 1830, when Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in upstate New York and published the Book of Mormon. Five years later, he took his first plural wife, according to History of Polygamy From the Primer, a manual published by the attorneys general of Utah, Arizona and Colorado. Smith was killed by an angry mob in Illinois in 1844, but Brigham Young took over leadership of the church and led his followers to Utah.
In 1862, Congress banned polygamy, and in 1890, with Utah's admission as a state hanging in the balance, the church renounced polygamy. Polygamous splinter groups formed, including one that moved to Colorado City, Arizona — 40 miles east of St. George — which remains a stronghold of Jeffs' sect.
Before 1961, Colorado City was known as Short Creek, the site of a disastrous law enforcement raid in 1953. That year Arizona authorities, intent on enforcing long-ignored polygamy laws, raided Short Creek, arresting 31 men and nine women and taking more than 230 children and women into state custody, according to History of Polygamy. Press photos of crying children and families being pulled apart prompted national outrage, however, and authorities freed those they'd arrested.
After that debacle, the polygamist communities were generally left alone to practice their beliefs in peace for decades, critics say.
But times appear to be changing in Utah.
In 2002, a Utah polygamist named Tom Green was convicted of child rape after taking a 13-year-old as his fifth wife.
The following year, best-selling author Jonathan Krakauer published a nonfiction account of his investigation into the Utah polygamy community called "Under the Banner of Heaven." That book focused on the harrowing double murder by sect members of a mother and her baby daughter. The New York Times called it "an arresting portrait of depravity."
Then in 2004, Brent Jeffs filed a civil suit against his uncle Warren, saying he'd been sodomized by the church leader when he was 5 years old in a FLDS school bathroom. The prophet disappeared.
By May 2006, with the fugitive church leader still on the lam, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said, "I have a corner of my state that is worse than [under] the Taliban," according to The Los Angeles Times.
The mainstream Mormon church vigorously distances itself from the practice of polygamy.
"We have nothing to do with these polygamist groups," Mike Otterson, media director for the Mormon Church, told the Rocky Mountain News in 2005. "They are living against the law. They are not a splinter group or a breakaway group. You wouldn't describe Protestants as breakaway Catholics."