Courtroom Testimony Opens Window into Polygamy

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Dramatic testimony in a Utah courtroom last week revealed little-known details about the practice of polygamy. The key witness in the case is a young woman who claims that Warren Jeffs, leader of a group of about 6,000 polygamists, forced her to marry her cousin when she was 14.


Last week in a courtroom in St. George, Utah, a young woman identified as Jane Doe revealed little-known details about the persistent practice of polygamy.

Ms. JANE DOE: And we were taught not to want to marry someone. We were taught to want to marry whoever the prophet told us to marry.

SEABROOK: The prophet in this case is Warren Jeffs, the leader of a group of about 6,000 polygamists. Jane Doe said she was assigned to a husband when she was just 14. That marriage and the sexual relations that followed led to criminal charges against Jeffs. NPR's Howard Berkes was in the courtroom for the hearing in this case, and he filed this from his reporter's notebook.

HOWARD BERKES: Watching the hearing was like peering through slightly separated Venetian blinds into a world most of us could not possibly imagine and into a house at one point. That image was capture by a scratchy courtroom audio system when Judge James Shumate questioned Jane Doe about the polygamist house she once lived in.

Ms. DOE: There was at least 40 bedrooms, to my knowledge.

Judge JAMES SHUMATE (Utah Judge): Any idea of how many bathrooms?

Ms. DOE: They usually tried to put a bathroom either in or two rooms shared a bathroom.

Judge SHUMATE: Minimum of 20-plus bathrooms?

Ms. DOE: Yes. I know he had at least 15 wives and that some had children. Thirty, 40 people lived there at that house.

BERKES: That's when Jane Doe was a child. When she was a big girl and in the ninth grade, her religious leaders decided it was time to marry. Her older sister, Rebecca, told the court...

Ms. REBECCA (Jane Doe's Sister): It was just shocking and horrific. She was only 14.

BERKES: But when Rebecca was asked about her marriage when she was 19, she said her assigned mate was 64 years older, and she shared him with what are known as sister wives. Polygamist husbands, Rebecca noted, have absolute authority.

Ms. REBECCA: You were to submit to your husband and be obedient to him in absolutely every way so that God could talk to your husband to talk to you, as the wife.

BERKES: Rebecca didn't say whether she and her 83-year-old husband had a honeymoon, but Jane Doe talked about a group honeymoon involving all the other couples married the same day. They took a road trip to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Remember, Jane Doe was 14. She was raised in a culture with its own religious schools. Television, newspapers and other contaminants were shunned. And she told the court she was completely ignorant about sex.

Ms. DOE: I knew that you had babies but I didn't know how. I had no idea what it - I mean I know that you would have children, but that's it.

BERKES: The finer points were left to husbands. Jane Doe's husband was 19 and also her first cousin. He had this approach.

Ms. DOE: I remember I had been looking at the stars and I looked over and he was exposing himself. And I was so shocked. I had never seen a man's private parts, and I said what is that? Put that away. And he - and I just kind of jumped up and I ran home.

BERKES: Watching this testimony intently but with no discernable emotion was Warren Jeffs, the polygamist prophet. Behind him, about a dozen followers watched quietly, all men. They stood when Jeffs stood, a sign of respect. There were no women with them. The hearing reconvenes in two weeks. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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