Incest Trial Sheds Light on Polygamy in Utah


For three days this week, a jury of eight men listened to competing versions of the truth, verbal combat that pitted the testimony of a nervous teenage girl against a powerful family whose private practices she dared reveal to the world. The bizarre case shed light on an almost Gothic tableau of incest, polygamy and the messy consequences of divulging family secrets.

The incest trial of David Kingston, 33, who is charged with having sex with his then-16-year-old niece last year, highlighted values held dear in Utah--church, family and filial obligation--and set them against the law and reformers who would shed the state of lingering remnants of its pioneer heritage.

On Thursday, jurors found Kingston guilty of incest and unlawful sexual conduct. Kingston was found not guilty on two other incest counts. The closely watched decision may or may not have sent a message about the state’s resolve to stamp out polygamy.


The practice was given an indirect public hearing through the actions of the teenager, who in May 1998 walked 4 1/2 miles down a dirt road and dialed 911. She told a Box Elder County sheriff’s deputy that her father, John Daniel Kingston, had driven her from Salt Lake City to a remote ranch near the Idaho border and beat her into unconsciousness.

John Kingston pleaded guilty last month to charges he committed that assault, which authorities said was intended as punishment after his daughter ran away from an arranged marriage with her uncle. The girl said she was the 15th wife of David Kingston, part of the Kingston Clan, a large group of self-proclaimed fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy, or multiple marriage.

John Kingston is awaiting sentencing. David will be sentenced July 9 and could face up to five years in prison on each count.

“This is a case where the opposing views are on opposite ends of the spectrum,” Assistant Dist. Atty. C. Dane Nolan told the jury. “What you need to focus on is, was she telling the truth.”

Credibility was at the core of the case. David Kingston, who sat stone-faced during the trial, did not testify. But testifying over parts of two days, the small, pale teenager, speaking at barely audible levels, wove a strange tale of multiple marriages, incestuous couplings and an almost cult-like control over the lives of family members.

The girl told of her father instructing her, when she was 13, to begin thinking about marriage. Two years later, he informed her of the identity of her betrothed: his younger brother David.

David Kingston, 16 years older than his niece, is an accountant for the business holdings of the Kingston family, valued by some at $150 million. According to the victim, David was already married to 14 women, including his half-sister and another niece.

Though she didn’t want to go through with it, the girl dutifully planned the wedding, cleaning the church for the reception. Her father presided over the ceremony at which she and David Kingston sat on a bench, with his other wives behind them, she testified.

Soon after their October 1998 wedding, Kingston gave her a ring set with 15 stones to signify her place in the wifely order.

According to the girl, she and her husband/uncle spent their wedding night at a hotel in Park City.

The defense did not dispute that Kingston stayed in the hotel but, in a dramatic turn, called his legal wife, Sharli Kingston. Answering questions in a terse bark, Sharlie Kingston testified it was she who accompanied her husband to Park City that night, casting doubt on the girl’s entire story.

But Sharlie Kingston’s story began to unravel when prosecutor Nolan instructed her to draw a diagram of the hotel room on a board. Haltingly, she did, describing the television as being placed inside an armoire. She was so nervous she began to hyperventilate and, when excused, rushed from the room.

Moments later, Nolan called the victim as a rebuttal witness.

“Can you diagram the hotel room from your wedding night?” he asked the girl, who had been outside the courtroom for the previous testimony. The teenager quickly sketched out the room, noting there were two sinks, the television was on top of a dresser and a pool could be seen outside the window.

Nolan then called Kevin McDougal, assistant manager of the hotel. When asked, McDougal strode to the board and began to draw the room. With each stroke of the pen, the hotel room took shape exactly as the victim had described it.

Although the hotel room, in which the girl said the newlyweds did not have sex, was not a crucial element to the case, the accounts did seem to give the girl credibility and cast doubt on the stories of Sharlie Kingston and another woman, purported to be another wife, who testified for the defense.

The trial provided a fascinating glimpse into the community of polygamists, who are believed to number as many as 30,000 throughout Utah. Although the practice was once common here and sanctioned by the Mormon Church, both the church and state outlawed multiple marriages in 1890. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicates anyone who practices polygamy.

No one in Utah has been prosecuted for polygamy in more than 40 years, but polygamist communities dot the rural landscape. One reason for the lack of punishment, law enforcement officials say, is that no specific statute makes polygamy illegal in Utah. Prosecution might fall under the state’s bigamy laws, but polygamists here are rarely bigamists: bigamists officially marry more than one person; polygamists usually officially marry their first wife, then take multiple wives in church ceremonies.

Others cite the serious consequences facing a victim who comes forward with a story that puts her at odds with a huge, extended family.

“If you don’t have a victim, you don’t have a crime,” said Marianne Suarez, the sheriff’s deputy who investigated the case against John Kingston.

The case here was tried before veteran Judge David S. Young. In 1994, Young was named by Redbook magazine as one of the country’s most sexist judges. And a 1996 analysis by the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper revealed Young’s decisions to be the most overturned in the state.

Young announced on the first day that the trial was “not about polygamy” but incest, and throughout the trial prevented Nolan from introducing any evidence that suggested David Kingston is a polygamist.

When discussing why one of her roommates was not at home on a particular night, the victim explained that it was “her night"--the assigned night for her to spend with David Kingston. The judge would not allow it.

Young claims to be a direct descendant of Brigham Young, the early leader of the Mormon church.

Though the case was considered by some to be a legal referendum on polygamy, few believe it will have much effect.

“I’ve seen polygamy wax and wane as an issue here,” said Ed Brass, a criminal defense attorney. “There’s horrendous child abuse cases that take place every day and they don’t get the attention of this case. I don’t think, legally, it will be significant.”

But Laura Chapman, who grew up in polygamy and went on to help found an anti-polygamy group, saw the verdict another way: “This gives girls trapped in polygamy the hope that they can escape, they can control their own lives. This says there is hope in the state of Utah.”