FLDS Trial: Jury finds Jessop guilty

Man faces life sentence in sex assault

San Angelo Standard-Times/March 17, 2010

San Angelo, Texas - A Tom Green County jury Wednesday found Merril Leroy Jessop, 35, guilty of sexual assault of a child in connection with allegations he illegally married an underage girl.

The sentencing phase of his trial continues today, beginning at 9 a.m.

Jessop is a member of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

He maintained a pleasant expression while 51st District Judge Barbara Walther read the jury statement early Wednesday afternoon and pronounced the word "guilty."

Jurors heard closing arguments Wednesday morning and left at 11:30 a.m. to deliberate. The trial was in its eighth day.

Attorneys were summoned back to the courtroom at 12:30 p.m.

After the verdict, the jury had a lunch break and began hearing arguments for the sentencing phase of the trial.

"Now that you have found Jessop guilty, it is now your obligation to decide what is the appropriate form of punishment," lead prosecuting attorney Eric Nichols said.

Because the jury found that an enhancement to the laws on sexual assault of a child applies, the penalty was elevated from a second-degree to a first-degree felony. The punishment Jessop faces ranges from five years with the recommendation of probation to 99 years or life in prison with a fine of up to $10,000.

Lead defense attorney Dan Hurley said Jessop's virtues would come out in the trial.

"You will hear he is a hardworking man," Hurley said. "He keeps his word. He honors his obligation."

The state called in former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop, who was married to Merril Leroy Jessop's father as his fourth wife when Merril Leroy Jessop was under 15.

She said girls were taught that their eternal salvation depended on complete obedience to the "priesthood head" - their father and later husband - and the prophet. An essential part of their being obedient included having children.

Before marriage, however, boys and girls were segregated.

"The rules were to treat a girl like a snake," Carolyn Jessop said. The same was true for boys, she said.

She said she was taught as a child that just as snake might be venomous, a licentious man or woman might cause one to lose salvation.

The state also called a computer expert to testify that certain pictures depicting the pregnancy of the underage girl had been deleted the second day of the April 2008 raid when authorities in response to a call searched for a girl who had said she was abused. Law enforcement personnel now believe the call to have been a hoax.

Early Wednesday, Nichols gave the first closing argument.

"You can conclude who that child's parents are beyond a shadow of a doubt," he said of the baby the state alleges was born as the result of the relationship between the defendant and an underage girl.

Nichols hearkened back to the DNA experts who said Merril Leroy Jessop had more than a 99 percent probability of being the father.

Nichols said the state can prove its case with circumstantial evidence as with direct evidence, returning to a metaphor about snow to distinguish the two kinds of evidence - seeing snowfall for direct evidence versus seeing snow on the ground the next morning for circumstantial evidence.

"We're not dealing with snow now," Nichols said. "We're dealing with two children."

Behind him, a projected image showed the girl the state alleges was abused, half smiling and holding the child.

Nichols also referred back to evidence "taken from the sacred church archives" which indicated Merril Leroy Jessop was living at the ranch at the time of the offense, which the state says was Aug. 20, 2006, when the girl was 15.

Nichols also told the jury to recall the intent of the "spiritual" or "celestial" marriages that the FLDS practices.

"The purpose of the celestial or spiritual marriage is to be placed in a position to bear children to achieve her eternal salvation," Nichols said.

Lead defense attorney Dan Hurley began his closing arguments with a reference to the book "To Kill a Mockingbird," specifically a time when the main character is told to "walk a mile in their shoes" before judging someone.

Hurley said all the sect members, not just women, were raised to believe that the FLDS prophet is "God's mouthpiece on earth."

Hurley noted that, according to documents with cover sheets saying they were "incomplete and unapproved," Merril Leroy Jessop had been called to marry the alleged victim with half an hour of notice.

"Was he intentionally and knowingly violating the law, or was he following the directive of the prophet?" Hurley asked.

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