SAN ANGELO, Texas (Reuters) - Jurors in the Texas child sexual assault trial of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who heads a breakaway Mormon sect, began deliberations in the case on Thursday.
Jeffs, 55, is charged with child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault in connection with his “spiritual marriages” to two girls, ages 12 and 14, at his sect’s Texas ranch. He faces up to 119 years in prison if convicted.
Jeffs, in what was to have been his closing argument, simply stood silently in the courtroom for more than 20 minutes before quietly saying: “I am at peace.” He then sat down.
Jeffs is considered the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and has argued in loud court outbursts that the court was trampling on his religious rights by trying the case.
The 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.
Assistant Texas Attorney General Eric Nichols took seven days to put together a methodical case against the self proclaimed ‘prophet and elect of God’ of the breakaway FLDS sect, which says plural marriage is the pathway to heaven.
A prosecution expert has testified that DNA evidence shows Jeffs fathered a child with the 14-year-old. Jurors have also viewed a picture of him passionately kissing the younger girl.
Prosecutors also presented a scratchy tape recording of what they said was Jeffs raping the younger girl.
Jeffs represented himself after firing his attorneys. He called as a witness one of the followers of his religion and questioned him for over four hours about the Book of Mormon and FLDS beliefs concerning plural marriage.
State District Judge Barbara Walther finally halted Jeffs’ presentation, saying it was irrelevant to the charges he is facing.
Jeffs’ sister Elaine, who also grew up in the FLDS as the daughter of long-time church ‘prophet’ Rulon Jeffs but has left the church, wasn’t surprised by her brothers’ defense.
“He has not said one word in defense of the assault charges,” Elaine Jeffs said outside the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, where the trial is taking place.
Jeffs is also awaiting trial on a charge of bigamy, which is a felony in Texas. That case is expected in October.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston