September 25, 2007 / 7:51 PM / 12 years ago

Polygamist leader Jeffs convicted in rape case

ST. GEORGE, Utah (Reuters) - U.S. polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was convicted on Tuesday of being an accomplice to rape for arranging a marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old first cousin.

Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs confers with defense attorney Richard Wright after the verdicts against him were read out, in St. George, Utah, September 25, 2007. REUTERS/Jud Burkett/Pool

Jeffs, the self-described “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, spent 15 months on the run and was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list before his arrest in August, 2006.

Sentencing was set for November 20 and Jeffs, 51, faces five years to life in prison.

Jeffs did not testify during the emotionally wrenching, two-week trial and showed no expression as the verdict was read. Many of his supporters as well as the rape victim, who is now 21, and her family were in court.

The trial has riveted Utah, the western state with a majority Mormon population, and fascinated much of the United States. Jeffs’ sect is not associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are called Mormons.

Polygamy was one of the early tenets of the Mormon religion, but was rejected in 1890 as Utah sought statehood.

Prosecutors argued during the two-week trial that Jeffs knew when he arranged and presided over the 2001 marriage, in which the girl was an unwilling partner, that forced sex would follow.

“HE HELD ALL THE KEYS”

In tearful testimony, the victim said she begged Jeffs not to marry her to her cousin, whom she did not like. Jeffs had told her it was her religious duty to give herself to her husband, and instructed her to repent and submit to his will.

The woman, whose identity was not disclosed during her trial, said she wanted to die after her husband first forced her into sex.

Attorneys for Jeffs argued that he could not have known that rape would be committed behind closed bedroom doors, and that the accuser was too vague when she told Jeffs about her problems with the relationship.

Defense attorneys said they would appeal.

Jurors said after the verdict that much of their deliberations focused on the issue of enticement and the age of the victim. They said Jeffs was the girl’s only hope of getting out of the relationship and that he failed.

“He ultimately held all the keys to say ‘you don’t have to be in this marriage.’” said juror Stan Coulter, 26.

The case followed the formation three years ago by Utah authorities of a task force to uncover crimes within polygamous communities, including the abuse of minors and sex crimes.

But Richard Holm, a former member of the sect, said he did not believe that the self-proclaimed prophet’s conviction would have much impact on the sect or polygamy in Utah.

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“He will be regarded as a martyr. There is a power base and system in place to carry on,” Holm said.

But Holm said he was happy and relieved with the guilty verdict. “I think he (Jeffs) saw an opportunity to take glory, credit and power for himself ... In doing so, he abused and hurt a lot of people,” he said.

Under Utah law, a person 14 or older can consent to sexual intercourse.

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