NPR logo Polygamist Leader Convicted Of Child Sex Abuse


Polygamist Leader Convicted Of Child Sex Abuse

A Texas jury has convicted polygamist leader Warren Jeffs of child sexual assault charges in a case stemming from two young followers he took as brides in what his church calls "spiritual marriages."

The 55-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stood stone-faced as the verdict was read.

The charges came after a massive 2008 raid of the church's remote West Texas ranch. Jeffs faces up to life in prison.

The jury deliberated for just a few hours.

A forensic analyst testified that Jeffs was an almost certain DNA match to the child of a 15-year-old mother. Jeffs also was accused of assaulting a 12-year-old girl. The prosecution presented an audiotape of Jeffs having sex with the 12-year-old follower. NPR's Wade Goodwyn says that in the recording, Jeffs says her name out loud several times.

"As damaging as the DNA evidence was to Jeffs, that audiotape was also bad," he told All Things Considered host Melissa Block.

Jeffs acted as his own attorney, after hiring and firing defense lawyers for months.

"Over time it became apparent by his timing he'd fire them just before a critical hearing, and that he was actually trying to delay the proceedings," Goodwyn said.

When Jeffs fired his lawyer again on the day the trial began, the judge refused to give another continuance.

Throughout the trial, Jeffs claimed he was a victim of religious persecution. The FLDS, which has at least 10,000 members, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism and believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

"He told the court that God had told him if the court didn't stop the proceedings God would strike them with illness," Goodwyn said.

The sentencing phase of the trial began after the verdict was announced, and Texas' attorney general said it could take three days. The government now has a list of more than 600 "bad acts" by Jeffs. Prosecutors are expected to present evidence of widespread wrongdoing, which was unrelated to the sexual assault charges but is admissible in the punishment phase.

"The fact that there's even talk that this could turn Warren Jeffs' followers away from him is a sobering indication of the kind of testimony this jury may be hearing next," Goodwyn said.

Eleven other FLDS men were charged with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy. All seven of those who have been prosecuted were convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.