FLDS TRIALS: Jeffs gets 17 years in assault

The San Angelo Standard-Times, Texas/June 23, 2010

Eldorado - Abram Harker Jeffs smiled at his defense council, and one of his attorneys blew a sigh of relief from his puffed cheeks.

Jeffs had just been told his sentence for sexual assault of a child: 17 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, the lowest first-degree felony sentence yet for a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"For crimes that occur at the YFZ Ranch, they will be held accountable," lead Prosecutor Eric Nichols said Wednesday after 51st District Judge Barbara Walther read the jury's sentence, referring to the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Schleicher County.

Nichols said Schleicher County has done its duty in presiding over three trials.

"The trials have been a tremendous burden on this county," Nichols said.

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said Nichols was sore because he didn't get "as stiff a sentence" as he wanted, compared with the 75-year and $10,000 fine sentence an FLDS member received for the same charge out of Tom Green County.

"I think it was easily exploited in Tom Green County," Jessop said, claiming that the FLDS presence was sensationalized.

Floyd West, a rancher in Schleicher County who has attended every day of court, said he is a neighbor to the YFZ Ranch and is disappointed with the sentence.

"I felt it was a slap on the wrist," West said. "I felt like he should have gotten a lot more."

Because of an enhancement that makes the second-degree felony of sexual assault of a child a first-degree felony, Jeffs could have received five to 99 years or life in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

The enhancement says if the alleged victim is prohibited from marrying, purporting to marry or living with under the appearance of being married to the defendant, the crime become a first-degree felony.

Jeffs was found guilty Tuesday of assaulting 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.

Throughout the case, the state relied on documents that came from a raid on the YFZ Ranch in April 2008. The defense has constantly objected to introducing the documents as evidence, saying they were obtained through illegal search and seizure because the raid was prompted by what has now been determined to be a hoax call from a woman claiming to have been abused at the ranch.

The raid also resulted in more than 400 children being removed from their families, although an appellate court ordered them returned.

Walther overruled all such objections since she ruled the warrants, which she authorized, were lawful in a 2009 hearing.

Earlier Wednesday, the defense and prosecution gave their summations to the jury.

"Who is going to stand up for the victim in this case?" prosecuting attorney Angel Goodwin asked jurors before answering for them. "You are."

Defense attorney Brandon Hudson said the women on the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Schleicher County had the opportunity to ask for help when Child Protective Services came during the raid.

Goodwin brought up church records that say that Jeffs had five wives, one of which was a legal marriage. Three wives were out of state along with four children.

Defense attorney Stephanie Goodman suggested Abram Jeffs sees his family often.

"He is a trucker. His wife has a business up there," Goodman said.

One of the wives was the wife of his father, Rulon Jeffs a former prophet or top leader for the FLDS.

Goodwin said some documents showed that Abram Jeffs was called on to hastily remove a woman from the ranch by his brother and then-prophet Warren Jeffs.

"It was Abram Jeffs who did that task," Goodwin said.

Goodwin said Abram Jeffs, who according to documents in evidence had contact with Warren Jeffs, did nothing to help law enforcement find him when Warren Jeffs was a fugitive on the FBI's most wanted list.

Goodwin also recalled testimony from a clinical psychologist who said girls in the FLDS can become suppressed and psychologically unhealthy with constant reminder to "keep sweet" and "don't feel, follow."

"Does this look like suppression of little girls? Look at the smiles.

This is a family man," Goodman said as she showed jurors pictures of Abram Jeffs with children. "Usually we see one woman and a bunch of fathers. ... These are relationships; they support one another and help one another."

Goodwin also said that not giving probation would be ideal since it would send a message.

Hudson characterized sending a message in such a way as devious and unethical.

"They want you to punish so bad, so hard and so ugly, that other people of that religion will not come," Hudson said. "Don't do that easy thing."

Hudson told jurors charges against Warren Jeffs in Arizona had been dropped and evidence in prior convictions against him in Utah is now being called into question. He noted that the FBI put him on the Top 10 wanted list, which is populated by the likes of Osama bin Laden.

Nichols disagreed that probation would be workable for Abram Jeffs, although Goodman said Abram Jeffs would probably not be able to live at the YFZ Ranch.

"The only way that you all as jurors can make sure that he does not violate the law is to put him in the one place where you can incapacitate him from violating the law," Nichols said, against the testimony from Steve Henderson, the director of the County of Lubbock Community Supervision and Correction Department, that probation can be worse than prison.

Hudson apologized to the jurors for asking Sgt. Wes Hensley, a co-case agent in the case against Abram Jeffs from the office of the Attorney General of Texas, about salvation, a point at which the jury laughed aloud from the awkwardness. Hudson characterized the FLDS faith as that of a Christian Protestant religion.

"He is a very faithful man," Hudson said. "He is a man just like us."

Two character witnesses who had dealt in business with Abram Jeffs said he had excellent character, although Nichols had the witnesses say they didn't know Abram Jeffs' family and hadn't been out to the YFZ Ranch.

"I give him an A-plus," said Bill Briley, who has done trucking work with Abram Jeffs.

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