Polygamist leader’s conviction reversed

The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed the 2007 conviction of Warren Jeffs, a self-proclaimed prophet and polygamist who was found guilty of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old child bride.

The court agreed with defense lawyers that the judge erroneously told the jury that Jeffs could be convicted if he knew unwanted sex would result from the marriage he presided over between the girl and her older cousin.

The unanimous ruling makes it unlikely that Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, can be tried again in Utah, state Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff said in a telephone interview. “It would be very difficult, based on this decision, to prosecute him,” Shurtleff said.

Jeffs, 54, received two sentences of life in prison for his 2007 conviction, which was the culmination of a lengthy campaign against underage marriage in the FLDS, a breakaway sect that has been disavowed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is based along the Utah- Arizona border.

Jeffs still faces charges of bigamy and sexual assault on a child in Texas, which is seeking to extradite him from Utah. He will continue to be held in state prison until that process finishes, Shurtleff said.

Jeffs’ conviction stemmed from his role in marrying the two cousins. The girl, Elissa Wall — who has since written a book about the case — implored FLDS authorities to stop the wedding. State prosecutors argued Jeffs was responsible for the subsequent rape, while defense attorneys contended that only the new husband was to blame.

Jeffs’ attorneys on Tuesday hailed the ruling. “Mr. Jeffs should never have been charged with being an accomplice to rape,” attorney Walter Bugden said at a televised news conference in Salt Lake City. “This is a case where the constitution really prevailed.”

Shurtleff’s office and local prosecutors in southern Utah were reviewing the ruling and said they had made no decision on whether to retry Jeffs. But Shurtleff was pessimistic. He said it appeared that no child marriages have been performed in Utah since 2005, when the state began to pursue Jeffs. He feared some other sect leaders may start trying to resume the practice in light of the ruling.

“It leaves us kind of scratching our heads as to how we can prevent this,” Shurtleff said.