Polygamist's Lawyers Want Trial Moved

Lawyers for polygamist Warren Jeffs want his trial moved to the other end of the state, saying their client can't get a fair trial in Southern Utah. Jeffs is accused of facilitating rape. The case involves the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a member of Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The polygamous Warren Jeffs is due back in a Utah courtroom today. He's got a hearing. The leader of the nation's largest polygamous group is charged with two counts of being an accomplice to rape. Mr. Jeffs' attorneys will argue that their client is so notorious and his polygamous religion so reviled, that his trial should be moved to the opposite end of the state.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports from St. George, Utah.

HOWARD BERKES: Rod Parker doesn't think polygamy prophet Warren Jeffs can get a fair trial in his home county on the Utah-Arizona border.

Mr. ROB PARKER (Warren Jeffs' attorney): I think it is a poisoned atmosphere.

BERKES: Parker bases that on his own experience. He represented Jeffs in civil cases, and one of Jeffs' followers against charges of polygamy and unlawful sex with a minor.

Mr. PARKER: The case had a lot of publicity about child brides and claims of forced marriage and those sorts of things. People had really latched on to that. They had very deep opinions about that when we encountered them in the jury selection process.

BERKES: The Warren Jeffs case has had similar widespread publicity, along with an endless stream of stories about the 6,000 or so members of the polygamous church Jeffs leads. He bears the burden of their reputation as well as his own. The Jeffs defense team says that's clear in a poll they commissioned. Two hundred people were interviewed in the group's home region of Washington County. Two hundred more were surveyed in Salt Lake County, the Utah metropolis, a six-hour drive north. Now, neither the defense team, nor their pollster, nor the prosecution, would speak for this story. So, we turned to political pollster Anna Greenberg for analysis.

Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Political Pollster): When I looked at the numbers in the survey, I see that there's no doubt that people who live in Washington County have stronger feelings about the presumption of guilt. You have, you know, about half - a little over half - who say that the defendant is definitely guilty. When you look at Salt Lake County, you see that that number is smaller.

BERKES: But the poll also asked whether Jeffs was probably guilty. The share of those surveyed who said Jeffs was either probably or definitely guilty is almost identical in both Washington and Salt Lake Counties. About 75 percent of the people surveyed in both counties leaned toward guilt.

Ms. GREENBERG: The other thing that's striking to me is, even though Salt Lake County is six hours away, almost everybody will offer an opinion about the case. Part of the argument when you ask for a change of venue is that you are locating a trial some place where people are relatively unfamiliar with the details of the case. And what you see here is that most people already have an opinion about this case.

BERKES: That doesn't surprise Eric Luna, a law professor at the University of Utah.

Professor ERIK LUNA (Law, University of Utah): This case has been widely publicized in the United States and, in fact, around the globe. So, I don't see that a change of venue motion moving the case from one county to the next is going to solve any concerns about impartiality and fairness.

BERKES: Luna notes that all a trial needs is 12 jurors willing to be fair, not an entire county of them. Attorneys for polygamous Warren Jeffs hope a Utah judge will rule differently when they seek to move the Jeffs case in a pre-trial hearing today.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, St. George, Utah.

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