July 28, 2011 -- 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.
Evidence Will 'Shock the World'
As the trial begins, a former follower of Jeffs', Elissa Wall, who five years ago was one of the first women to bring charges against the polygamist sect leader, is speaking out to say the trial will open the world's eyes to the insular, polygamist world of the FLDS and Jeffs.
Wall was one of the first of Jeffs' followers to pursue criminal charges against him when, in 2006, she said Jeffs forced her, as a 14-year-old, to marry her 19-year-old first cousin, Allen Steed.
"Warren Jeffs was a principal in my school and he also cultured a lot of the views of the religion I grew up in," Wall, now in her early 20s and married with two children, said on "GMA."
"This [the current trial] is an opportunity for people to see firsthand the actual crimes that Warren Jeffs himself has committed," Wall added.
After leaving the FLDS, Wall pursued criminal charges against Steed for sexual assault and against Jeffs for being an accomplice to rape. Jeffs was convicted on those charges in 2007 but the conviction was overturned by an appellate court on a technicality.
"I was able to get out but it was a struggle," Wall said of her experience with Jeffs, a story chronicled in her book, "Stolen Innocence." "Many people don't understand the people within these closed communities can't just walk out of them. It takes a choice."
The high-profile nature of the case was highlighted in the selection of the jury, of special focus in Texas where state law allows juries to set the penalty for those they convict.
Jeffs has gained worldwide notoriety for having a reported 70 wives and leading the sect's 10,000 members who live 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.
Jeffs' attorneys have said they would request a change of venue out of San Angelo due to the attention on the case, but have yet to file a motion to do so.
Wall told "GMA" she believes the trial, no matter where it is held, will show the jury the controlling behavior she says Jeffs inflicts on his followers.
"He did display a lot of narcissistic behavior," she said. "He was much like a prince in our community, only he was the mouthpiece of God because God was in our prophets."
"He commanded a lot of respect and we all feared him very much," Wall said.
Jeffs' Grip on Followers Still Firm
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.
"They will always continue to believe him until he dies or something else happens," Wall said. "It goes against their religion and their entire faith to denounce him."
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.
Both alleged victims in the case along with 76 other women have been called to testify.
"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.
Local news affiliates report that hundreds of people still live at the Texas ranch and construction crews continue to work on buildings on the $110 million property, including a four-story limestone temple.
"I don't think his incarceration has in anyway diminished his status," Watkiss said. "It has elevated his status because it has made him a martyr for the cause."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.