Texas jury sentences polygamist leader to life
SAN ANGELO, Texas |
SAN ANGELO, Texas (Reuters) - A jury sentenced polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who heads a breakaway Mormon sect, to over a century in prison on Tuesday for sexually assaulting two underage girls he wed as "spiritual" brides.
The Texas jury of 10 women and two men handed down the maximum sentence allowed after less than an hour of deliberations. Jeffs was given a life sentence, or 99 years, for one charge and 20 years for the second.
Prosecutors said Jeffs, the 55-year-old spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had "played a sick game of child molestation under the guise of religious ceremony."
"Justice has arrived for Warren Steed Jeffs," said Assistant Texas Attorney General Eric Nichols, who prosecuted the case. "We expect that he will spend the rest of his life in prison."
Jeffs was convicted last week of child sexual assault over his relationships with two girls he "married" when they were 12 and 14 years old at his sect's Texas ranch. He fathered a child with the older girl.
After the sentencing, a crowd of hecklers gathered on the sidewalk behind the courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, as Jeffs was placed into a police car. "Do you still think you're the prophet?" one woman yelled.
Jeffs, who represented himself at trial, had argued in loud outbursts that the Texas court was trampling on his religious rights by trying the case.
His polygamist sect, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America, has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church and is accused of promoting marriages between older men and girls.
William Jessop, an FLDS elder who has acted as the unofficial spokesman for the group's Texas ranch in the past, said the trial showed the government should have acted sooner to rescue women and children who were being abused by Jeffs.
"There was evidence that was seized way back in 2006 and 2007 of this abuse," he said, referring to some recordings of abuse. "That's a lot of years, and all we can do is thank God that he was stopped."
POLYGAMIST GROUPS PRAISE VERDICT
A polygamist coalition in Utah and Arizona said the life sentence was justified. Jeffs will serve his prison terms consecutively and would not be eligible for parole until 2070.
"I feel like justice has been done. I don't feel like he should be out in society. Even among his own group. I think he has a tendency to be a pedophile. And with that weakness, who is to say he won't repeat these crimes," said Anne Wilde, a spokeswoman for polygamist advocacy group Principle Voices.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who had long pursued Jeffs, said the sentence was appropriate. "I'm pleased that they've sent the message that you can run but you can't hide."
Jeffs, who allowed lawyers to represent him during the sentencing phase of his trial, had instructed his attorneys to refrain from making closing arguments on his behalf, though he did make a written request for probation.
Defense attorneys said after the sentencing that they would not be handling Jeffs' appeal, but that there were legitimate grounds for one, including that evidence in the case had been gathered during a 2008 raid triggered by a false abuse report.
Asked what he would have done differently had Jeffs allowed lawyers to represent him at trial, on-again-off-again defense attorney Deric Walpole simply said: "Lots."
The sentencing came a day after Jeffs was heard on audio recordings telling groups of young teen girls that they would be "rejected by God" if they refused his sexual advances.
Jeffs' conviction stems from a highly publicized raid on the sect's Yearning For Zion compound in Eldorado, Texas, in which authorities took temporary custody of some 400 children. They later returned them to their families.
Some legal experts have said evidence gathered in the raid could be disallowed because it was based on a false report.
But Judge Barbara Walther, who has presided over the case in her San Angelo courtroom since the raid, allowed evidence prosecutors said proved Jeffs abused his position in power to have sex with girls as young as 12.
A dozen defendants connected to the ranch have been indicted on child sexual assault, bigamy or other charges, according to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office.
Eight have been convicted on felony charges, and the others are awaiting trial, the attorney general's office said.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Angelo, Texas, and James Nelson in Salt Lake City, Utah; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston)
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