Witness to Testify Against Polygamist Leader Polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs appears at a preliminary hearing in Utah today. Jeffs is the biggest target yet in a two-state crackdown on the persistent practice of polygamy. The leader of the nation's largest polygamous group faces two counts of being an accomplice to rape.
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Witness to Testify Against Polygamist Leader

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Witness to Testify Against Polygamist Leader

Witness to Testify Against Polygamist Leader

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Polygamous prophet Warren Jeffs gets to face his accuser today. He's the leader of the nation's largest polygamous religion. And he's due back in court for a probable cause hearing in St. George, Utah. Mr. Jeffs is charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice. Conviction could send him to jail for life.

NPR's Howard Berkes is just covering the hearing.

(Soundbite of car engine)

HOWARD BERKES: Heavy security is expected here at the courthouse, which sits at the base of a red rock block and about 40 miles from the twin towns Warren Jeffs and his polygamous religion dominate.

Six thousand followers live there - members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS Church. The faithful believed Jeffs is a prophet of God. They believed polygamy ensures eternal salvation.

They refuse to speak with reporters, but they do believe today's hearing is harassment, according to Attorney Rodney Parker, who has represented Jeffs, his church and some followers.

Mr. RODNEY PARKER (Attorney): It's the fact that he's being prosecuted for doing something that is within the parameters of his religious calling. In other words, counseling a woman in this case in a religious setting and then being prosecuted for what he said to her, they see that as religious persecution.

BERKES: The counseling involved a 14-year-old girl. She told investigators that Jeffs forced her to marry her 19-year-old first cousin and then have sex with him despite her repeated protests.

According to court documents, Jeffs said she had a spiritual duty to submit, and that resistance would cost her her eternal salvation. That's powerful psychological pressure for a child raised in the faith, says Erik Luna - a professor of criminal law at the University of Utah - in response to the religious counseling defense.

Professor ERIK LUNA (Criminal Law, University of Utah): But if this individual happened to be underage and she was forced to engage in sexual contact, and if a particular religious authority figure was in any way aiding and abetting in this, then I think that this is not so much a question of religion as it is a question of a violation of criminal law and a harm committed against a young girl.

BERKES: That alleged harm has not triggered charges against the alleged rapist. The man, Warren Jeffs, is accused of aiding and abetting. Prosecutors declined interview requests, but they have said in the past that rape charges may still be filed.

Jeffs' defense team also declined to be interviewed, and Jeffs' accuser has been silent except in court documents. Today, she's expected to tell her story in public for the first time.

Watching closely will be Rowena Erickson, an anti-polygamy activist who spent 34 years as a plural wife. Warren Jeffs, she notes, is not charged with polygamy, but a related crime.

Ms. ROWENA ERICKSON (Anti-Polygamy Activist): It's the beginning of really going after the crimes and hopefully, eventually, it will escalate into saying that polygamy is a crime that is causing all of these other things to happen. Without polygamy, this wouldn't be happening.

BERKES: Without polygamy, this courthouse wouldn't have satellite trucks in the parking lot and reporters in the courtroom from around the globe. But polygamy alone has been difficult to prosecute.

Most plural wives don't see themselves as victims. Spiritual marriages don't leave a public paper trail, and polygamous groups are secretive. So prosecutors focused on associated crimes, especially forced marriages involving underage girls and older men. Warren Jeffs finds out today whether he'll stand trial for that.

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

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