FLDS member found guilty of child sexual assault

The San Angelo Standard-Times/June 22, 2010

Eldorado - After being sent out to deliberate at 10:45 a.m., a Schleicher County jury returned a verdict of guilty for Abram Harker Jeffs at 11:40 a.m., less than an hour.

Jeffs, 39 and a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was charged with sexual assault of a child. He is the latest in a series of men from the YFZ Ranch, an FLDS community near Eldorado, to be prosecuted on child sexual assault charges since the state raided the ranch two years ago.

"In this case, we don't have a car wreck or a snowstorm," lead Prosecutor Eric Nichols said for his closing arguments, alluding to examples he used to explain different kinds of evidence to the jury. "In this case, we have a child."

The state alleged that Jeffs assaulted a girl with whom he was in an FLDS "spiritual" or "celestial" marriage on May 12, 2006, when Jeffs was 34 and already legally married and when the girl was 15.

Nichols referred to evidence from two DNA tests and documents that were seized from the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Schleicher County during the April 2008 raid that resulted in the state getting hundreds of documents while taking more than 400 children from the ranch. The latter decision was reversed by an appellate court and the children were returned.

"You don't have to believe it just because they tell you," defense attorney Brandon Hudson said.

Hudson has objected and told the jurors that they shouldn't give any weight to the evidence that was gathered as a result of the raid and that the raid violated his client's rights because the seizure was based on what law enforcement personnel have concluded was a hoax phone call from a woman claiming she was being abused on the ranch.

"We make objections because we think the way the evidence was attained was wrong," Hudson said. Hudson pointed to a petition involving the raid that had no promised affidavit attached. "There was a huge mistake before this ever got started.

Hudson and Stephanie Goodman, another defense attorney, both attacked the DNA evidence as questionable because two samples were analyzed rather than one.

Both samples gave the same results, DNA experts testified earlier in the trial.

Hudson also said nothing attached his client to many of the church records, noting that the records were kept "secret and sacred," among even the FLDS, and he said that dictations from then-leader Warren Jeffs were at times the product of dreams and not necessarily reliable, especially in light of cover sheets that said, "incomplete" and "unapproved."

"We pray you'll use a mixture of the two, man's law and God's law, and find our client not guilty," Goodman said. Her voice quivered throughout her final statements — she said Abram Harker Jeffs had become a friend to her.

Nichols, in his second and final closing argument which the prosecution has because of their burden of proof, said freedom of religion does not give license to do anything.

"They say we should say someone's religious belief trumps the law," Nichols said. "The law says there are certain values that you must abide by. ... We are all accountable."

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said afterward he believed the state at last publicly has made the case a religious matter.

"For the first time, they've admitted it's about religion," Jessop said.

Jessop also stressed deprivation of rights, in the raid and in the trial, as an issue of prime concern.

"Disregard your first, fourth, fifth and sixth amendment rights, and anyone is in danger," Jessop said. "We need to have judicial notice of what's happening."

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