SAN ANGELO, Texas (Reuters) - Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who heads a breakaway Mormon sect, was found guilty on Thursday of child sexual assault for his so-called “spiritual marriages” to two underage girls.
A west Texas jury convicted the 55-year-old Jeffs of child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault over his relationships with the girls, ages 12 and 14, at his sect’s Texas ranch. He faces up to 119 years in prison.
Jeffs is considered the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and has argued in loud outbursts that the Texas 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.
“This is taking down the head of the snake,” former sect member Flora Jessop said of the verdict, handed down after about three hours of deliberations. “There is always somebody willing to step into the shoes of the leader.”
Throughout his trial, Jeffs repeatedly said that his religion was being attacked, a notion rejected by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office prosecuted the case.
“What was on trial here wasn’t anybody’s faith, wasn’t a church, wasn’t a concept,” Abbott told reporters after the verdict outside the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo.
“There was only one thing on trial here, and that was Warren Jeffs and his actions to sexually assault two young girls. Our job is to prosecute crimes like that, and not to engage in religious persecution.”
Abbott said he expected the punishment phase of Jeffs’ trial to take several days, adding it would include the introduction of a “tremendous amount of evidence.”
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 his FLDS sect, which says plural marriage is the pathway to heaven.
Among the evidence used to convict Jeffs was a picture of him passionately kissing the younger girl, and DNA evidence that he fathered a child with the 14-year-old.
Prosecutors also presented a scratchy audio recording of what they said was Jeffs raping the younger girl.
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.
Jessop, a former sect member who ran away from a forced marriage to a much older cousin, said the church would go on despite Jeffs’ conviction but she hoped some followers would get out.
“Maybe they will think now about the types of crimes that he (Jeffs) has committed,” she added.
Jeffs had 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 ultimately halted Jeffs’ presentation, saying it was irrelevant to the charges.
Jeffs’ sister Elaine, who also grew up in the FLDS church as the daughter of long-time “prophet” Rulon Jeffs but has left the community, wasn’t surprised by her brothers’ defense.
“He has not said one word in defense of the assault charges,” Elaine Jeffs said outside the courthouse.
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