Jury gives Dutson 6 years, $10,000 fine

San Angelo Standard-Times/November 9, 2010

San Angelo, Texas - Keith Dutson Jr. was escorted out of the Tom Green County Courthouse, his hands uncuffed, showing a pleasant demeanor despite having just been sentenced to six years in prison and fined $10,000 on a conviction for sexual assault of a child.

"None of us can presume to know the mind of the jury," Eric Nichols, the lead prosecutor, said outside the courthouse after the sentence.

Dutson, 25, is the youngest member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to be sentenced out of the seven who have undergone prosecution on evidence seized in the raid on the FLDS-owned Yearning for Zion Ranch in Schleicher County.

The raid was provoked by a call claiming abuse at the ranch, a call later determined to be a hoax.

"Keith believed he was a part of a lawful wedding," FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said of the union between Dutson when he was 20 and the victim when she was 15.

Nichols, who has prosecuted all seven cases for the state, said Dutson's trial revealed more about how girls are groomed through cultural forces to be married while they are underage.

All the criminal trials have been based on allegations that older men who already are married have taken underage girls as "celestial" brides as part of the FLDS practice of polygamy.

Jessop said the state is persecuting religion.

"We're watching a tragedy of the Constitution," Jessop said. "They did not like a religion, and they cherry-picked who they would prosecute. People don't care, until they realize that it's their religion next."

Dutson's sentence is the shortest to date. The sentences have ranged from seven years imposed as part of a plea deal to 75 years in the only previous Tom Green County jury trial. The other trials have been held in Schleicher County.

Jurors deliberated 3½ hours Tuesday before reaching their decision. They received their charge from 51st District Judge Barbara Walther and retired to deliberate at about 11:45 a.m.

Dutson elected to have jurors decide punishment. His crime is a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The jury had the option to recommend probation if the sentence were fewer than 10 years in prison.

Jurors spent the morning listening to closing arguments.

Wes Mau, a prosecuting attorney, said letters from Dutson to his prophet Warren Jeffs showed Dutson to be devout and honest regarding his faith.

"He is not a liar," Mau said of Dutson, saying that his honesty and devotion to his religion is part of the problem. "We know these are crimes the FLDS endorses," he said about polygamy, a practice that the FLDS sanctions through unofficial "spiritual" or "celestial" marriages.

Mau said Dutson's defense team would hide behind religion.

"They're going to wrap him in the flag of freedom of religion," Mau said. "What crime is it OK to commit in the name of religion?"

Brandon Hudson, one of Dutson's attorneys, said religion isn't being used as an excuse.

Hudson said that being a part of a ceremony and taking someone as one's "lawful wedded wife" nevertheless makes the offense less egregious than someone such as a playground stalker.

"This is not the kind of sexual assault we're fearful of," Hudson said.

Mau said the purposes of punishment are giving people what they deserve and deterrence, "setting the price too high" for committing the crime.

Hudson argued that setting the price too high deviates from the reason for having a range on punishment, and that rehabilitation should be another reason for punishment. He said that rehabilitation for Dutson is possible through therapy that might be provided as part of a probation sentence. A prison sentence would merely confirm Dutson's view of the world as being a wicked place, Hudson said.

Hudson also addressed evidence that the prosecution said showed that FLDS women are treated like property.

"Do you strive to be better for your property? No," Hudson said, referencing one of Dutson's letters that said he tried to be a better person for his wife.

Hudson said that a poem entered into evidence that referred to treating women as prophetesses, priestesses and queens should show jurors that life in the sect is more benign than the state pictured it.

"I'm trying to take you from the scary words of the state to the real world of Keith," Hudson said.

Hudson said he wanted jurors to focus on Dutson but to consider that communities outside the FLDS also have pregnant minors.

"This is nothing more than the state versus the FLDS," Hudson said.

Nichols said Dutson would not be able to undergo rehabilitation. He said FLDS ways are too ingrained in him.

"We're not talking in the abstract about what someone believes," Nichols said. "We're talking about what this man believes. ... It's not just that the seed was planted. It sprouted."

Stephanie Goodman, another defense attorney, referred to the 25-year-old Dutson as "a kid" in her address to the jury.

She said all FLDS members should not be condemned for the bad that a few have done, particularly imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, for whom the state alleged Dutson served as security when Jeffs was a fugitive.

"Give this boy a chance at probation," Goodman said. "That will send a far bigger message."

Nichols said the next hearing will be a status hearing in January on the progress of Wendell Loy Nielsen, who faces three counts of bigamy.

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