Warren Jeffs Sentenced For Sexual Assault
NEAL CONAN, host: Today, a jury in Texas deliberated less than half an hour before it gave Warren Jeffs a life sentence. Jeffs was the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a group with no connection to the Mormon Church. Last Monday, the same jury found him guilty of the aggravated sexual assault of two underage girls that he took as his brides. Jeffs represented himself at the trial and may have missed some opportunities to challenge some of the evidence.
He also decided not to call Ken Driggs to the stand. Driggs is an attorney, a legal historian, an expert of polygamy who was on the defense's list as an expert witness, and he joins us now from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Nice to have you with us again.
KEN DRIGGS: I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And if the defense had called you, Ken, what would you have said?
DRIGGS: Well, I would have responded to the questions I was asked. I never really was clear on how they might have used me. I was actually first contacted by some earlier attorneys that Mr. Jeffs had on the case, and he went through a series of, basically, firing lawyers. I suspect that what - how they would have used me would have been to explain a bit about the history and traditions of this religious community. There were several trials prior to Mr. Jeffs' in West Texas that had jury sentencing as opposed to judge sentencing that, for the most part, resulted in extremely long harsh sentences.
And I gather that some of the lawyers who defended those cases felt like the jury was not given much context of who these people were. To them, it looked like they just dropped into the prairie out there from Mars without knowing much about their history and the multigenerational history. Additionally, I think the attorneys who defended those other individuals really didn't know anything about the culture, and I suspect they were kind of looking for a guide and interpreter to explain to them something about this community.
CONAN: Well, explain to us something about this community that might make it seemed less Martian.
DRIGGS: Well, the LDS church, the big church as I call it, the Mormon community, was under intense federal pressure over what Mormons call plural marriage or celestial marriage - it's now generally referred to as polygamy - in the late 1800s. And finally, after the courts in response to an act from Congress began seizing millions of dollars of Mormon assets and were on the verge of seizing their temples, the LDS community more or less capitulated and made a concerted effort to become part of the larger traditional Christian community in the United States.
And there were very traditional Mormons who felt that was wrong, that it was an abandonment of God's laws, and that the church couldn't do that, and that this was an indication that the church had fallen away somehow. And these involved issues besides plural marriage. They involved religious communalism. They involved temple rituals. They involved garments that Mormons frequently referred to as temple garments, and a number of other issues, including some teachings.
And these dissenters gradually got excommunicated from the big church. And by the late 1920s, there was sort of a critical mass of them that came together and formed this parallel religious community, and the FLDS is one of a number of groups that came out of that parallel religious community. There are maybe, oh, 40, 50, 60,000 of these people in the various groups now in western Canada, the United States and Mexico. Originally, they were numbered in a few thousand. But that's where they come from.
CONAN: And would you have made the argument, had you been asked, that in a sense this trial of Warren Jeffs was a trial of this religious community, not necessarily just of this one leader?
DRIGGS: There were certainly aspects of that in the way the state through (technical difficulty) general's office, which prosecuted the cases, presented their cases. I know that FLDS members viewed it as an attack on their community. I know the prosecutor in the case argued that it was not, in fact, an attack on the community but just an attack on the individuals. But it was certainly not always received that way by members of the community.
CONAN: And Warren Jeffs, though, was a particularly vivid member of this community.
DRIGGS: He was. He is the son of Rulon Jeffs. His father was the prophet and leader of this community. And Warren was one of his, I think, 33 sons when he died in 2002. Warren had been the headmaster of a parochial school that the community had in the Salt Lake Valley, the Alta Academy.
But in the late 1990s, his father had become basically so infirmed with age that he was not really able to function as leader of the church. And Warren came down to the, sort of, home community in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona - it's basically one community that sits on the state line - and, essentially, began running the affairs of the church. And many of the practices and teachings of the church really began to change as Warren exerted his influence. One of the big things that changed was their relationship with the outside world. They became much more withdrawn and pulled back into themselves. They took their children out of public schools and began teaching through church around the schools.
And then, finally, when his father died in 2002, there was a brief period of uncertainty about leadership. And then within a few months, Warren asserted that I am the prophet who succeeded my father. My father specifically ordained and designated me to succeed him, and he became the leader of the community that way, not without some dissenters.
CONAN: And is it a common practice within this group that young girls, underage girls are married to much older men?
DRIGGS: It was not my observation that that was the case. When I began going into the community - the first time I went there was January 1988, and I had been there a great many times. There was some incidence of that in the history of the community, but it was an experience that was greatly accelerated, apparently, under Warren's administration for a variety of reasons that he gave. I don't - It was not my observation that that was generally the practice of the community until Warren's time.
CONAN: But he did do that. That's what he was convicted of in this case and...
DRIGGS: Well, certainly a jury was persuaded of that. He was specifically prosecuted for brides, his - of himself, one age 12, one age 15, on this indictment. He has three more indictments pending in the state of Texas that involve underage brides.
In the punishment-phase portion of this case, the state presented documents that were seized in some raids of the ranch community they had in west Texas. And by the way, those are subjects of search and seizure challenges on appeal. But those documents seemed to indicate that he had, I think, 12 wives who were age 16 when he married them, another 12 who were age 15 when he married them and four who were age 12. The documents suggest that he had, I believe, 78 wives and 24 of them were minors or under the age of 18. That was up through about 2006, and I don't know that they had records after 2006.
CONAN: You mentioned that there were - some of the evidence was subject to appeal in terms of may have been seized illegally. Warren Jeffs represented himself. As you mentioned, he hired a series of, sometimes, prominent lawyers and then fired them and then ended up representing himself. Did he file a challenge yet?
DRIGGS: No. Generally, you have 30 days from the date of your conviction to appeal. I'm a practicing criminal defense lawyer. Representing yourself is virtually never a good idea, and this case was an example of, like, everything that could have gone wrong or be handled badly by a personal representation. He did have attorneys go forward with search and seizure challenges pretrial. So I think those issues are probably preserved for appeal. There was also a motion to recuse the trial judge that strikes me as a decent appellate issue. But virtually, everything that took place in the trial after he went pro se is pretty much gone.
CONAN: Pro se, representing himself. There's also another issue, they established the paternity of some of those children from DNA swabs after the raids.
DRIGGS: Yes. Yeah. One aspect of this trial is, when you have a sexual assault case, you virtually always have a willing and cooperative victim who takes the witness stand and says that's the guy and this is what happened to me. In this instance, neither one of these girls appeared. As I understand in all of the trials of other individuals leading up to this, none of the victims have ever appeared.
The state has established the sexual contact through detailed records that they seized when they raided this community. And there's a pretty good legal argument that the raid - the seizure of evidence was way outside the scope of the warrants - the search warrants that were issued as part of that.
So - but in addition to that, when the children were seized, the state took the position, we don't know about paternity on everybody. So they took DNA samples of all the kids that were seized, and then they told the parents the only way that you can get in line to try to get your children back is if you give us DNA samples. I'm not clear on the circumstances of Warren Jeffs' DNA sample. But in this trial, they were able to match a child that was born to the 15-year-old bride through DNA and established his paternity that way.
As to sexual contact with the 12-year-old, they did it through - Warren just kept copious notes and writings and revelations and just, sort of, wrote everything down that got seized in the raid. In addition to that, when he was first arrested in, I believe, 2006, he was in a car, a traffic stop outside of Las Vegas. And they quickly identified him as someone who was basically on the run from warrants at that point. And they were able to seize everything in the car. And that's a pretty good stop usually. I think that's a less likely avenue for relief on appeal for Warren.
And among the items they seized were these recordings, the most damning of these recordings that were played in the trial that purport to be him having sex with, I believe, the 12-year-old in the presence of other people. The recording is muffled and is not real clear on this part, but they were able to match it up with some of these other written records they had and, obviously, persuaded the jury. So it's not...
CONAN: And as we look to this broader community, though, you mentioned there were dissenters, yet clearly, he was accepted as the prophet, the leader. And this community, if it did not broadly endorsed his practice, enabled it.
DRIGGS: Well, I've certainly had that argued to me. I know a lot of people in this community quite well. I've stayed in homes there. I've played with their kids. I've gone to funerals and church services. So I think I have a pretty intimate contact with the community. And the people I know who have invited me in their homes as a guest would never - I would never imagine them approving this kind of conduct. I personally think that the great majority of the community was not aware at least of the details of it.
The people in Texas might have been, or likely were much more aware of it than the people who were back in the, sort of, home community in Utah and Arizona. And I suspect a lot of people just would find it very hard to accept and believe things that were - violated their own values so much.
CONAN: Is this conviction of him, as you say to some degree as a representative of this community, is just going to make him a martyr.
DRIGGS: In the past, there have been a number of criminal prosecutions of these people in the past, and pretty consistently, those convictions have converted the people into martyrs. It's also driven this community underground and made them less willing to cooperate with law enforcement and put their kids in public schools and things like that. I think this one is different. I think the testimony, which I followed pretty closely - I was in Texas for some of the pretrial stuff but not for the trial, but I followed it closely - it is so vile and so graphic and detailed. I just can't see him ever regaining his standing with the community.
They are going to find it hard to accept. I think there's going to be a period of mourning for a lot of people in that community. But I have a lot of Catholic friends who did decide to stop being Catholic when some of the priest molestation cases came out. I think for a lot of people, religious community is family. It's connected up to their marriages and family relationships, and remaining part of that is something more than how you feel about a particular leader.
CONAN: Ken Driggs...
DRIGGS: My own prediction is that after some period of time, new leadership will emerge. People may say things about how they feel about Warren that they're not always necessarily thinking.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And...
DRIGGS: But I do think they're going to move past Warren Jeffs and continue with new leadership.
CONAN: Ken Driggs, thanks very much.
DRIGGS: Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: Attorney Ken Driggs joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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