Utah court reverses polygamist leader convictions

Associated Press/July 27, 2010

Salt Lake City - The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed the convictions of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and ordered a new trial, saying a jury received incorrect instructions before considering his role in the 2001 nuptials of a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

Jeffs, 54, was convicted in 2007 of two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice. He is serving two consecutive terms of five years to life in the Utah State Prison.

"We are thrilled that the Supreme Court had the courage to exonerate, or at to least find that legal errors were made, so that Mr. Jeffs, obviously a very unpopular figure in the state Utah, could have his conviction overturned," defense attorney Wally Budgen said.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Laura DuPaix said the state maintains its position that Jeffs used his religious authority to force an underage girl to marry and have sex.

"The court said today that at least part of our legal reasoning was misguided, we accept that and we think that's unfortunate," DuPaix said. "We do think that it will make it a little more difficult to prosecute men like Warren Jeffs who are forcing young girls in to unwanted marriages."

She said no decision has been made about whether to prosecute Jeffs again. Meanwhile, authorities in Texas are trying to get him sent there to face charges.

Jeffs is head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect, whose estimated 10,000 members live mostly on the Utah-Arizona state line, practices polygamy in marriages arranged by church leaders. Some marriages have involved underage girls to older men.

Jeffs performed the religious marriage of Elissa Wall and Allen Steed in a Caliente, Nev., motel and later counseled Wall to be obedient and give her "mind, body and soul" to her husband in an effort to make an unhappy marriage work.

During the trial and later in her book, "Stolen Innocence," Wall said she objected to the marriage and was forced into sexual relations with her husband.

The Associated Press does not typically name victims of alleged sexual assault, but Wall has frequently spoken publicly about the case.

In its ruling Tuesday, the court agreed with defense attorneys who argued that jurors should not have been told to decide whether Wall's marital relations were consensual based on Jeffs' actions and his role as her religious leader. That essentially equates Jeffs with Steed - the person who allegedly has had nonconsensual sex.

Justices said prosecutors were wrong to make that leap.

"Only after there is a determination that an offense has been committed can the law impose liability on another party who 'solicited, request, commanded, encouraged or intentionally aided' in the commission of that offense," the court's opinion states.

Steed was charged with rape the day after Jeffs' September 2007 conviction, but the case has languished and it's unclear how it might now proceed.

The state now has 14 days to ask for a rehearing of the case before the Utah Supreme Court. If no hearing is requested, the case goes back to the 5th District Court.

DuPaix said part of the state's consideration about whether to retry Jeffs will be the criminal charges pending against him in Texas.

Federal prosecutors also have a fugitive charge pending against him. That charge stems from a period of about 16 months in which Jeffs was considered a fugitive from justice - with charges pending in both Utah and Arizona - but could not be found. Jeffs was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List until his August 2006 arrest in a Las Vegas traffic stop.

Jeffs faced charges of accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor in Arizona, but they were dismissed last month after prosecutors said the two alleged victims no longer wanted to proceed with prosecution.

Jeffs had been scheduled to appear in Utah's 3rd District Court on Tuesday so a judge could ask him to sign a warrant seeking his extradition to Texas, but the hearing was canceled after the Supreme Court's ruling.

Texas authorities used family records gathered during a 2008 raid on a church ranch near Eldorado to charge Jeffs with bigamy, sexual assault of a child and aggravated assault. The charges allege marriages between Jeffs and girls ages 17 and 15 in 2005.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press last week, Bugden said Jeffs intends to oppose extradition.

It's expected that Texas authorities will have to start a new proceeding to continue efforts to extradite Jeffs.

Tuesday's ruling from Utah's high court comes as Washington County authorities investigate allegations that Wall may have lied about her medical records that were used in the trial.

County Attorney Brock Belnap launched an investigation in February after he was told by a third party that Wall's "medical records had all been created in one day to make it look like she had seen a caretaker on several different occasions."

The status of that investigation was unclear Tuesday. Wall's attorney, Roger Hoole, told The Associated Press he had no comment ahead of a news conference planned for Tuesday afternoon.

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