SAN ANGELO, Texas (Reuters) - Jury selection got underway in a Texas ranching community on Monday for the child sexual abuse trial of Warren Steed Jeffs, leader of a breakaway polygamist Mormon sect.
Jeffs, 55, is charged with sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child for entering into spiritual ‘marriages’ with two girls, ages 12 and 14, at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Jeffs is considered the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church and is accused of promoting marriages between older men and girls.
The sect, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers, also teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven, he must have at least three wives.
The trial stems from Jeffs’ “ecclesiastical” or “spiritual” marriages to two girls at the West Texas ranch he set up when he took control of the sect after his father, longtime FLDS “Prophet” and insurance salesman Rulon Jeffs, died.
They were not licensed civil marriages, due to the girls’ ages and the fact that at the time Jeffs was already married.
Jeffs also faces charges of bigamy, a felony in Texas, but won’t face trial on those counts until this fall.
After decades on the Utah-Arizona border, Jeffs in 2003 expanded into Texas at the ranch seen as a new headquarters for his church, which he saw expanding across North America from outposts including in Canada.
The current trial stems from the persistence of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who pursued reports that ended in a headline-grabbing raid on Jeffs’ compound three years ago. Abbott personally attended the first day of jury selection.
Abbott engineered Jeffs’ date with Texas justice after the Utah Supreme Court threw out his conviction on charges of arranging the ‘marriage’ of an underage girl, and Arizona officials agreed to withdraw similar charges there.
But Patrick Metze, a Texas Tech Law professor who has followed the case, says prosecutors face several hurdles.
“This case involves overtones of religious freedom and over-reaching by the state of Texas in the initial search of the FLDS compound and seizure of all the children located on the compound on an unverified phone tip,” Metze told Reuters.
“There is a complicated search warrant question, which is before the appellate courts right now.”
The evidence prosecutors will present includes the so-called “Bishop’s List,” which details the number of wives and children Jeffs and other FLDS men claimed. The jury will also see photographs of Jeffs and the two girls he is accused of marrying intended to mark their “one-year anniversary.”
The evidence was seized when Texas Rangers, followed closely by Texas Child Protective Services officers, raided the ranch in 2008 after a woman called a San Angelo domestic violence hotline claiming to be a 16-year-old child bride who was being beaten by her 52-year-old husband.
The call actually came from a Colorado woman prosecutors say had a history of false domestic violence outcries.
State District Judge Barbara Walther, who decided the fates of 430 children removed from the compound during the raid and who has presided in the cases of seven other FLDS men, rejected a request by defense lawyers to delay the start of the trial.
Jeffs has fired several defense attorneys, winning several delays, and only brought on the current one, Deric Walpole, last Wednesday. Walther ordered the other attorneys Jeffs had fired to stay on the case so that it could move forward.
“I’ve done everything I can, including going without sleep for days,” Walpole said, in reference to his attempts to catch up on the case and be prepared for trial.
Some 140 potential jurors came in during the morning. Jurors were given questionnaires to fill out and return by Tuesday. Jury selection could last all week, and court officials say the entire trial could last a month.
Jim Forsyth reported from San Antonio; Matthew Waller reported from San Angelo. Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston