A proponent of multiple wives, polygamous prophet Warren Jeffs appears destined to have multiple trials. The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed Jeffs’ two convictions on charges of rape as an accomplice and ordered that he be tried again.
“He was thrilled,” said Jeffs’ attorney, Wally Bugden. “He believed his prayers, and the prayers of many others, have been answered.” Despite a “media lynching,” Bugden added, “he felt the rights of an individual were protected by the Constitution.”
Jeffs is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), with an estimated 10,000 followers. The sect first split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — commonly known as the Mormon Church — in 1890 after Mormon officials renounced polygamy under pressure from the U.S. government. The FLDS captured national attention in 2008, when authorities acting on reports of sexual abuse of a minor raided its El Dorado, Texas, compound and placed 219 children and women in protective custody. Jeffs is considered a prophet in the FLDS, which has compounds in several western states, Mexico and Canada.
After spending nearly two years on the run, Jeffs was tried in 2007, convicted and sentenced to two consecutive sentences of five years to life in prison. The charges stemmed from his arranging the marriage of an unwilling 14-year-old girl, Elissa Wall, to her 19-year-old cousin, Allen Steed, in 2001. Wall testified at Jeffs’ trial that she implored him to release her from the marriage. Instead, he instructed her to give herself to Steed “mind, body and soul, and obey him without question,” she said. That action by Jeffs was the source of the second rape as an accomplice count filed against him. The first was alleged to have occurred soon after Wall and Steed were married and first had sex.
It was Jeffs who performed her marriage ceremony to Steed, Wall testified at trial, ordering her to “go forth and replenish the Earth and raise good priesthood children.”
The law under which Jeffs was charged states that the victim must be younger than 18 years, and “the actor” must be in a position of special trust with the victim. Jeffs’ attorney argued on appeal that the jury instruction should have focused on Steed’s “position of special trust” with Wall rather than that of Jeffs.
The Utah Supreme Court agreed. “The state interprets the term ‘actor’ to mean the defendant,” the court opined. “We conclude that the state’s interpretation is erroneous.” The opinion added, “We regret the effect our opinion today may have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain. However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case.”
Defense attorney Bugden said that prosecutors tried Jeffs on a “far-fetched legal theory” and that “it would be very difficult for them to meet their burden of proof” if there is a retrial. But Jeffs won’t be going anywhere soon. He still faces criminal charges in Texas in connection with his own alleged marriages to underage girls in 2005. The judge has denied him bail in that case, Bugden said. There also remains a federal indictment stemming from his time as a fugitive on the Utah charges.
The Southern Poverty Law Center began listing the FLDS as a hate group in 2005 because of its racist tenets. “The black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth,” Jeffs has preached. As for homosexuality, Jeffs said, “It is like murder. Whenever people commit that sin, then the Lord destroys them.”