SAN ANGELO (AP) – The oft-delayed, first criminal case against polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was set to begin July 25, after a Texas court on Tuesday rejected defense motions for more time and to remove the judge presiding over it.
Prosecutors allege the 55-year-old jailed leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had sex with two girls, one under age 14 and the other under age 17 at the Yearning for Zion ranch in remote Eldorado, Texas.
Jeffs was extradited from Utah in November, and was originally scheduled to stand trial in January. But state District Judge Barbara Walther moved the case back, first to February and then to late July. Jeffs’ legal team had sought still more time to prepare, but Walther ruled the trial should go forward as scheduled.
A separate bigamy trial against him has been scheduled for Oct. 3.
On Monday, the defense asked that Walther be recused from the case, arguing that her gestures and other body language had unfairly influenced the jury in the criminal trials of other sect members — all of whom were convicted.
Temporarily presiding District Judge John Hyde of Midland ruled that Walther wouldn’t be recused, however. Walther then retook the bench to let the scheduled trial date stand.
Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general’s office, said the judge also upheld her own motion for a change of venue — keeping the case at the courthouse in the city of San Angelo and Tom Green County instead of Schleicher County, which encompasses El Dorado.
Jeffs’ attorneys said they will contest the change of venue for the sexual assault of a child case in a hearing the week of July 18, according to the San Angelo Standard Times.
The paper also reported that attorneys settled details about how they would proceed in Jeffs’s trial, debating what kind of evidence — DNA evidence or that from a Nevada search warrant — could be turned over to the other side.
Since arriving in Texas, Jeffs has appeared in court with four different attorneys, forcing delays. During one January appearance, he fired an attorney only hours after retaining him.
Jeffs settled on prominent Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kearney in late January. Kearney immediately asked for more time, citing the “awesome” amount of evidence in the case, which he said could practically fill the courtroom if stacked floor-to-ceiling.
Walther had been sympathetic to Kearney’s task but did not side with him Tuesday.
The evidence includes thousands of pages taken from the Yearning for Zion ranch during a weeklong raid in April 2008. State authorities entered the ranch in search of evidence of underage girls being forced into polygamous marriages.
More than 400 children living there were temporarily seized in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.
Records taken from the ranch includes journals written by Jeffs. His writings indicate strict control over the smallest details of how residents were to live, from how the collar on the women’s dresses should look to how high drapes should hang off the floor. Jeffs also decided who would be married to whom, according to documents seized by authorities.
The ranch raid left a dozen men in the church facing charges that include sexual assault and bigamy. Seven have been prosecuted since last year, and all were convicted. Only in one case have jurors deliberated more than two hours. Walther has presided over each of the trials.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)