Bigamy investigation threatens TLC's "Sister Wives"

Thu Oct 7, 2010 3:27am EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Will a Utah district attorney spoil the polygamy party at TLC?

Only two weeks into the network's hit reality series "Sister Wives," the results of a felony bigamy investigation of the show's stars have been presented to the Utah County Attorney, who now must decide whether to file charges against Kody Brown and wives Mari, Janelle, Christine and Robyn.

Bigamy is a felony in Utah, where the Brown family lives and the show is set, carrying a possible three- to five-year sentence upon conviction. However, polygamists are rarely prosecuted unless they've committed so-called collateral crimes like child abuse or welfare fraud, none of which yet has been alleged.

"Sister Wives" is the first cable reality series starring an openly polygamist family, and police in Lehi, Utah, said they started an investigation after becoming aware of the Browns through the TLC show. Production company Figure 8 Films, which also made TLC's controversial hit "Jon & Kate Plus 8," is said to have discussed the possibility of criminal charges with the Browns before they agreed to participate in the show. But the family viewed "Wives" as a chance to stop hiding its lifestyle.

"When we decided to do the show, we knew there would be risks," the Browns said in a statement. "But for the sake of our family and most importantly our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking."

Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman told reporters that it could take months to review the file and decide whether to prosecute.

Meanwhile, the docu-soap about the Browns and their 13 children and three stepchildren premiered to 2.3 million viewers and dipped only slightly this past week. Seven episodes have been shot, including a season finale filmed in May in which Kody marries Robyn, his fourth wife, whom he courts throughout the season. A messy court case could derail the series, although TLC declined to comment on whether it plans to shoot additional episodes.

To fight back, the Brown family has hired constitutional law scholar Jonathan Turley, a noted critic of anti-polygamy laws. Turley said in an interview Wednesday that he's prepared with a legal defense if charges are filed.

"I remain hopeful that prosecutors will use their discretion and not pursue this family with criminal charges," Turley said. "This is a television program, there is no reason to move it from the television guide to the criminal docket. There is no evidence of child abuse or any other crime associated with this family."

The attention on "Wives" has put Utah officials in a prickly position: If they choose not to prosecute the Browns, it might be seen as a tacit endorsement of polygamy, a sensitive issue in Utah. But if they make an example of the Browns, they could be seen as arbitrarily punishing the family when many other plural marriages exist in the state and elsewhere.

"It would be rather curious to prosecute one family out of thousands simply because they have been on television," Turley said.

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