FLDS TRIAL: Jessop letters read in court

Closing arguments set for today

San Angelo Standard-Times/March 16, 2010

San Angelo, Texas - The prosecution and defense rested their cases Tuesday in the trial of Merril Leroy Jessop.

Jessop, a member of polygamous sect Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with sexual assault of a child in connection with allegations he illegally married an underage girl.

The jury will return at 9:30 a.m. today to hear closing arguments from the defense and prosecution, and then jurors will deliberate on the verdict.

Attorneys and 51st District Judge Barbara Walther had spent the day looking at documents - including letters from Jessop to then-FLDS prophet and leader Warrn Jeffs - to establish that Jessop was at the YFZ Ranch at the time of the alleged offense.

The state is charged with proving the venue of the offense, which allegedly occurred on or about Aug. 20, 2006, when the girl was 15 and Jessop was 31.

The defense brought in witnesses after the state rested its case around 4:40 p.m. The defense asked Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran about his involvement in the April 2008 raid of the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado.

Lead prosecuting attorney Eric Nichols asked how Doran's account of the raid was relevant.

"It demonstrates the other side of the story about a reason to fear law enforcement," lead defense attorney Dan Hurley said.

To that effect, Hurley brought a Child Protective Services worker to address, in part outside of the presence of the jury, how the children were taken from their mothers.

More than 400 children were removed from the ranch. A Texas appellate court later ordered them to be returned. Hurley also brought out a records custodian to testify about papers that say certain church records were marked by the church as "incomplete and unapproved."

Texas Ranger Danny Crawford took the stand to identify and read records and letters having to do with Jessop that were taken during the 2008 raid.

"Every time I look and see the temple I feel a surge go through me," read one of the letters from Jessop to Jeffs.

The letter refers to the gleaming white, three-story building on the ranch.

Another letter informed the prophet that the girl Jessop married had graduated eighth grade, and he asked that she stay at home to help around the house.

The prosecution showed the letters that have a reference to Jessop being at the YFZ Ranch, code-named R17 by the FLDS.

The defense had cover sheets for several of the documents that said some of the records had not received final approval from the church, and they also turned in written objections to Walther.

Walther sustained two of the defense's objections before retiring the jury so that the lawyers could preview other documents.

When the jury returned, Crawford continued to identify documents other than personal letters, all addressed to "Uncle Warren." The documents included listings that placed Jessop among the temple "builders" and "workers."

In one letter, Jessop said he was in charge of the heavy machinery.

Jessop has been a worker for a concrete company, the defense has said.

Records from Jeffs referred to the work that Jessop and others did building the temple as "establishing Zion in fullness."

In one recorded meeting between Jeffs and others over the phone, Jeffs asked if the men understood the discussion on construction and the provision of food.

"All present: (with hands raised) Yes sir!" the record stated.

In the document, dated April 24, 2004, Jeffs said he would reveal the religious nature of the ranch "at the right time."

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