SAN ANGELO (AP) – The child sexual assault case against Warren Jeffs was in the hands of a Texas jury Thursday, after the polygamist leader stood mostly mute for his closing argument.
Jeffs, who acted as his own attorney, stood expressionless, staring at the floor, for all but a few seconds of the half hour he was allotted. At one point he mumbled, “I am peace,” and said no more.
The only noise in the courtroom was the creaking of wooden benches brimming with spectators.
The 55-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is accused of assaulting two underage girls he had taken as so-called spiritual wives. He faces up to life in prison.
Jeffs had argued that his religious freedoms were being trampled. The FLDS, which has at least 10,000 members nationwide, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. The church believes polygamy is the key to heaven and that Jeffs is God’s spokesman on earth.
Prosecutors said the case had nothing to do with his church or his beliefs.
“You have heard the defendant make repeated arguments about religious freedoms,” said lead prosecutor Eric Nichols. “Make no mistake, this case is not about any people, this case is not about any religion. It is about one individual, Warren Steed Jeffs, and his actions.”
Prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year old, and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old.
“You might have asked yourselves,” Nichols said, “a lot of people may ask, why would someone record sex? … This individual considers himself to be the prophet. Everything he did, hour after hour, he was required to keep a record of that.”
The recordings and Jeffs’ personal journals were seized by police following an April 2008 raid on Yearning For Zion, a church compound in remote Eldorado, Texas, about 45 miles south of San Angelo. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody amid allegations that girls were being forced into polygamist marriages.
The anonymous call for help that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax, and the children were returned to their families, but images of FLDS women wearing frontier-style dresses and hairdos out of the 19th century had made headlines nationwide.
The lone defense witness Jeffs called, church elder JD Roundy, spent about 10 minutes on the stand Thursday discussing FLDS history after 4 1/2 hours of testimony Wednesday evening.
Before closing arguments, Jeffs asked that in the judge’s instruction to the jury, a provision be inserted to “find a man or individual innocent based upon pure religious intent and constitutional freedom of religion, with the need of greater understanding of that religious faith for true justice served to be given.”
When it was time to make his closing, Jeffs sat for a long pause, then stood. Jurors mostly avoided eye contact with him, even in the final minutes when he turned toward them, his eyes half-closed but still looking downward.
It was a strange ending to a trial that saw Jeffs read what he said was a statement from God threatening sickness and death on all involved if the case continued.
He tried three times unsuccessfully to have State District Judge Barbara Walther removed and filed a brief based on what he said was a revelation from the Lord saying she will suffer a crippling sickness that will soon take her life.
The prosecution had no participation from either alleged victim, but Nichols said sexual assault of a child was “so unconscionable” that it wasn’t legally required.
Nichols said Jeffs had entered into church marriages with the girls at the time he was already legally married.
Eleven other FLDS men were charged with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy. All seven of those who have been prosecuted were convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.
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