SAN ANGELO (AP) - Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs will represent himself at his sexual assault trial after dismissing his latest legal team — the seventh one — Thursday, just before his trial was to begin.
But even though District Judge Barbara Walther allowed Jeffs to represent himself, she refused his request to further delay the trial. Instead, she had the jury sworn in, Jeffs’ arraigned and decided opening arguments would be heard immediately after a lunch recess. Prosecutors had complained Jeffs’ frequent switching of attorneys was a delay tactic.
Jeffs, 55, is accused of sexually assaulting two girls. The charges stem from a 2008 raid on a remote Texas compound that belonged to his sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If convicted, he could go to prison for life.
He addressed the court for about 25 minutes, telling Walther that he thought hard before deciding he’d be better off representing himself. He asked for time to find another attorney who could help him file legal briefs.
Jeffs repeatedly said he needed a “pure defense,” and, although he wanted to represent himself, he asked that he be given some assistance, saying his ability to work and write in prison are limited.
“The condition of my present defense is such that I cannot use them. They, not having all needed understanding for my defense, which wants for representation by one who knows and understands the facts of these truths,” he said.
Jeffs has had seven attorneys appear on his behalf in recent months, leading to a six-month delay to the start of his trial.
All of Jeffs’ attorneys have been tight-lipped about the case. However, as jury selection began this week, Jeffs’ latest attorney, Deric Walpole, gave the first public hint of Jeffs’ planned defense, saying “my client’s right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy.”
Jeffs’ sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It has more than 10,000 members nationwide, and his defense is being financed by an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.
The massive 2008 raid at Yearning For Zion, a compound about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs’ trial is taking place, involved FBI and police SWAT teams. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the ranch appeared on airwaves across the country wearing their traditional, frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century.
Authorities moved in after receiving an anonymous call to an abuse shelter, alleging that girls were being forced into polygamist marriages. Based on that report, Walther signed the search warrant authorizing the raid.
The call turned out to be a hoax, made by a woman in Colorado, and the children were returned to their families. But once on the compound, police saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant — prompting the charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men.
All seven sect members who have been prosecuted so far were convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years — despite other FLDS members not testifying against them.
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