Trial Begins for Polygamist Warren Jeffs

The trial of Warren Jeffs is under way in St. George, Utah.

Jeffs is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the nation's largest polygamist sect. The trial centers on the arranged marriage of an underage teenager to her cousin. But the prosecution's case against the 51-year-old polygamist is not considered a certainty.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believes that in order for men to reach the highest degree of glory in heaven, they must have at least three wives. The man designated as the group's prophet holds enormous sway because it is he who decides whether a follower is worthy of more wives. This power is at the heart of the prosecution's case against Jeffs.

"That's their theory, is that he wielded a great deal of religious mind control over his followers. And that his word was the equivalent of the word of God, so if they didn't obey him, they were disobeying God," says Aric Cramer, a Utah criminal defense attorney who has followed the case.

The prosecution's case concerns a 14-year-old follower who was chosen by Jeffs to marry her 19-year-old cousin.

"The theory of the case is that she came to Mr. Jeffs saying, 'I don't want to be married to this man,' and he told her that she needed to go home and be a wife as she was commanded to by God," Cramer says.

Cramer says the problem for the prosecution is the charge — that Jeffs was an accomplice to rape. This charge is usually brought when a defendant is accused of holding down a victim while someone else raped her, but the circumstances of this case are nothing like that.

"I think it's a stretch. The fact that someone says, well, you should go home and have sex with that person seems to me doesn't rise to the level of coercion," says Cramer.

Defense lawyers are expected to argue that if a religious leader like Jeffs can be prosecuted for rape as an accomplice, many other more culturally acceptable professionals could be vulnerable too.

"It kind of casts a pallor on marriage counselors, on religious leaders, on anybody who's involved in trying to help people with marriages if they tell a husband or spouse to go home and stay with that other husband or spouse, behave as married couple, then they could be charged as an accessory to rape," Cramer reasons.

But if prosecutors are broadening the traditional definitions of rape as an accomplice, that might not matter to the jury. A poll taken in St. George, where the trial is taking place, found that 75 percent of respondents thought Jeffs was either definitely guilty, or probably guilty.

Outside a local grocery store, Angie Tripp, a mother of two, agreed with the majority. Many of Jeffs' followers live about 40 miles from St. George, and the women — who wear traditional pioneer dresses — are often seen around town. Tripp says she was once approached by a woman who claimed she had escaped Jeffs' group.

"He did arrange a marriage for her. She escaped, and she said she was taken to one of their Canadian compounds, and she tried to escape there, and they almost stoned her to death. Oh, I definitely think he's guilty," says Tripp.

Tripp's reaction gives some indication of the challenge facing defense lawyers.

Jeffs is accused of rape as an accomplice, but polygamy will be on trial too. Jeffs' intimate association with that institution may be too much for his lawyers to overcome.

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