SAN ANGELO (AP) – The defense team for polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs again tried to have the judge hearing his case removed for bias, soliciting testimony Monday from court officials in an attempt to show she took an unusual interest in the case and received extra security because of it.
It’s the second time the 55-year-old Jeffs, ecclesiastical head of a radical, Mormon offshoot known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has sought to replace Texas District Judge Barbara Walther. He is scheduled for trial July 25 on aggravated sexual assault of a child charges that could land him in prison for life.
The charges stem from an April 2008 raid on the church’s Yearning for Zion compound outside the town of Eldorado, south of San Angelo, where Jeffs is set to be tried. Authorities who believed underage girls were being forced into polygamous marriages temporarily removed more than 400 children living at the compound, and the story made headlines nationwide when women there were seen in frontier-style dresses and 19th century hairdos.
The raid left Jeffs and 11 others facing charges that included sexual assault and bigamy. Seven have been prosecuted since last year, and all were convicted in cases overseen by Walther — who signed the original search warrant that prompted the raid.
Judge John Hyde of Midland presided over Monday’s hearing and said after more than five hours of testimony that he would issue a ruling Tuesday. He listened to, and ultimately denied, Jeffs’ first motion to remove Walther last month. That claimed the judge’s body language affected jurors during earlier trials of FLDS members.
This time, Jeffs attorney, Emily Munoz Detoto of Houston, said Walther received calls while the raid was going on about how many children were being removed. The judge then called child protective services to ensure they had the manpower to handle so many cases.
“From early on, there was a tenor of bias against Mr. Jeffs and the church of the FLDS,” Detoto said. During testimony, one of the law enforcement officials involved in the raid, Brooks Long of the Texas Rangers, confirmed that Walther received updates on the raid — but said that wasn’t unusual.
He said police had been told 150 people lived on the compound but the figure was actually 800, that authorities spent nearly three hours talking with church leaders before they were granted access to the grounds and that residents watched the situation from guard towers.
“I have never been on a ranch in West Texas or anywhere in Texas that had a setup like this,” he said of the level of security.
Long also said attorneys for the church arrived on private planes and filed motions to stop the raid, meaning Walther could have learned about its progress from what was filed.
In the days after the raid, Walther was assigned additional security in court and at home as rumors flew that church supporters could come after her. Detoto argued that while Walther didn’t ask for additional protection, she “was threatened enough not to call it off.”
Detoto asked Long to read from a newspaper article where a church supporter claimed to have posted the judge’s home address and phone number on the Internet and suggested that someone “pay her a visit.”
Also testifying was Claire Carter, an assistant district attorney, who said that after the raid, an investigator and prosecutor from Arizona met with her and provided background on the FLDS, which has its headquarters in towns along the Arizona-Utah border. Carter said they provided photographs of several men identified as church enforcers who could target Walther or take other action.
Carter called the information “a minor part of what we talked about.” However, a subsequent witness, San Angelo attorney Tip Hargrove, said he saw the photographs pasted on the walls of an office used by a bailiff sometimes assigned to Walther.
Hargrove said that among those pictured was prominent church member Willie Jessop and Lyle Jeffs, Warren’s brother.
Detoto subpoenaed Walther to testify, saying she wanted to ask about the judge’s actions following the signing of the 2008 search warrant. She said making and receiving calls about the progress of the raid and accepting extra security could leave the impression “she strapped on a gun and a badge and had become part of law enforcement.”
But Hyde said calling Walther to the witness stand would require her to discuss her mental process in making judicial rulings.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to be asking `what was she thinking,”‘ Hyde said. “I can’t allow that.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)