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Jury convicts Jeffs in rape case

Times Staff Writer

A jury on Tuesday convicted the leader of a polygamous sect of two counts of being the accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl he had ordered to marry her 19-year-old cousin.

Warren Jeffs, 51, faces a possible life sentence. He remained impassive as the verdict was read in a hushed courtroom crammed with reporters and some of Jeffs’ followers, who believe he is a prophet and God’s agent in this world.

The victim, now 21, cried quietly as the verdict was read. Outside the tiny courthouse, she called for girls and women in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to resist leaders who order them to obey male authority.

“No matter what anybody says, you are all created equal,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “You do not have to surrender your rights or spiritual sovereignty. I understand how hard it is, but please stand up and fight.”

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Defense attorneys had argued that Jeffs was being persecuted for his religion, a sect that broke away from the Mormon church after it outlawed polygamy in 1890. They refused to comment and are expected to appeal the conviction. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 20.

The roughly 15 FLDS members who sat through the trial left without comment. Most sat stone-faced during the reading of the verdict, though two female FLDS members, clothed in their distinctive body-length dresses, winced as the court clerk pronounced the word “guilty.”

Speaking to reporters after the verdict was announced, jurors said they believed the law made it clear that the 14-year-old was raped and that Jeffs was partly responsible.

“It was her age and the law,” said juror Jerry Munk, 36, a St. George city maintenance worker. “Basically, she didn’t have to say anything for a rape to occur.”

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Juror Ben Coulter, 26, said Jeffs’ special position in FLDS society made him liable. “He was the only one who could release her,” he said. “He ultimately held all the keys to saying you don’t have to be in this marriage, and there won’t be any consequences.”

The eight jurors -- the standard number for a Utah criminal trial -- consisted of five men and three women. They deliberated 13 hours before one woman was removed Tuesday morning for undisclosed reasons.

She was replaced with a female alternate. The reconstituted panel reached a verdict three hours later.

Jeffs spent two years as a fugitive, landing on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list before being caught outside Las Vegas in August 2006. Law enforcement hailed the conviction as a key step in bringing his group of roughly 10,000 followers along the Utah-Arizona border into modern society.

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“Everyone should know that no one is above the law, religion is not an excuse for abuse and every victim has a right to be heard,” Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff said in a statement. “Let this verdict serve as a warning to anyone else who believes that forcing young girls to marry older men is acceptable.”

But many observers say that it’s likely that Jeffs’ conviction will not change FLDS behavior. He will remain the leader of the church, said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has represented FLDS members.

“There’s no question of who’s running the church,” Parker said in an interview before the verdict.

“It will stay that way regardless of the outcome.”

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Richard Holm, a former city councilman in the FLDS-controlled city of Hildale whom Jeffs excommunicated from the faith, said Tuesday that most sect members may not even immediately believe their prophet has been convicted. Once it sinks in, he added, it could strengthen their sense of persecution.

“He’ll be regarded as a martyr,” Holm said of Jeffs. “There’s a power base, a system still in place that he’ll continue to control.”

Jeffs still faces 10 counts of child sexual abuse, conspiracy and accomplice to incest in Arizona for two marriages -- including the one that was the subject of the Utah trial -- and a federal flight charge that carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in federal prison.

Prosecutors in the Utah case opted for the unusual accomplice to rape counts, one for the first sexual encounter and the second for sex that occurred after Jeffs refused to release the teenager from the marriage. Those charges carry a far harsher penalty than the three-year maximum for presiding over an illegal marriage.

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Jeffs was the top counselor and spokesman for his father, Rulon Jeffs, when the 14-year-old was directed to marry her cousin, Allen Steed, in April 2001. She testified that she protested furiously, but that Jeffs told her “your heart is in the wrong place.”

She dreaded the wedding to the degree that the night before, as she sewed her wedding dress with her sisters and mother, she testified that “I felt like I was getting ready for death.”

At the ceremony in Nevada, she refused to take Steed’s hand, she testified. Jeffs placed it in hers and told them to “go forth and multiply and replenish the Earth.”

Later, after she said Steed ordered her to be subservient and had sex with her despite her protests, she told Jeffs her husband was “touching me” in ways she didn’t like. She begged for a release from the marriage. He refused.

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Steed, who has not been criminally charged, testified that police did not contact him about the alleged rape until after charges were filed against Jeffs in early 2006. He acknowledged that his wife was unhappy in the marriage, but said she was the one who initiated sex.

Defense attorney Walter F. Bugden told jurors that Jeffs only gave the girl advice and was just one of many people, including her mother, urging her to marry. “They want to equate marrying and staying in the marriage with abetting a rape,” Bugden said.

But prosecutors said that under Utah law, a girl under age 18 can be raped if authority figures pressure her to have sex with anyone three years or more her senior. Jeffs did just that, Washington County Atty. Brock Belnap argued.

Church critics have long complained that Jeffs runs the faith with an iron fist, expelling boys from the community for the slightest infractions, separating from their families any who question him.

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Several previous efforts to prosecute sex abuse in the FLDS church have failed when female victims recanted for fear of being separated from their families. Belnap, choking up as he spoke briefly to reporters outside court, gave the victim credit for coming forward and not backing down.

She left the church three years ago after Jeffs dissolved her marriage to Steed.

In her statement after the verdict, she addressed members of her own family who remain in the church, including her mother and some of her 24 siblings. “Mother, I love you and my sisters unconditionally,” she said. “I will go to the ends of the world for you. I understand your convictions but I will not give up on you.”

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nick.riccardi@latimes.com


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