Polygamist Warren Jeffs gets life sentence plus 20 years

Abilene Reporter-News/August 10, 2011

Four hours after a Tom Green County jury sentenced Warren Jeffs, giving him life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting girls 12 and 15 years old, the polygamous sect "prophet" arrived at the Byrd Unit in Huntsville.

Jeffs got there about 3 p.m. for fingerprinting, photographing and processing to determine how he would spend the rest of his life in prison, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman said.

"Justice has arrived for Warren Steed Jeffs," special prosecutor Eric Nichols said outside the courthouse after sentencing.

The evidence against Warren Jeffs had swirled in the prosecutor's closing arguments.

Documents and testimony alleging sex in a baptismal pond connected to a school, running from the FBI, taking 12-year-old girls as brides, orgies with underage girls in God's name, tearing apart families because the husband wasn't working hard enough, audio of ritualistic raping — everything the jury heard had culminated with the maximum prison sentence for the head of the Fundamentalist Church in Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

A Tom Green County jury Tuesday morning sentenced Jeffs to life in prison on one charge and 20 years on a second-degree felony, to be served consecutively after processing at Huntsville in East Texas, just north of Houston. The sentence amounts to life plus 20 years in prison.

The jury deliberated 40 minutes before returning the punishment, for one count of sexual assault of a child and one count of aggravated sexual assault of a child.

The 55-year-old FLDS leader instructed his defense attorneys to remain silent for final arguments in the penalty phase of the trial.

Lead defense attorney Deric Walpole, who called no witnesses, presented no evidence and gave no closing argument, and other attorneys of record for Jeffs said little to the gaggle of media waiting outside the courthouse after the sentence was announced.

"We respect the jury's verdict," Walpole said. "Any case is a challenge."

In a statement issued from Austin this afternoon, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said:

"A total of 12 YFZ Ranch-related defendants have been indicted on sexual assault of a child, bigamy or other charges. Eight defendants have been convicted on felony charges and sentenced to prison. The other four defendants are awaiting trial. All prosecutions are being handled by the Office of the Attorney General, which is working in cooperation with 51st Judicial District Attorney Steve Lupton."

Jeffs was absent throughout the punishment phase of the trial, with lead attorney Deric Walpole providing counsel.

"You should not speculate about reasons for the defendant's absence," State District Judge Barbara Walther instructed jurors before closing arguments.

Special prosecutor Eric Nichols gave an impassioned speech to the jury, recalling bits of evidence they had heard from the witness stand and seen projected on a screen in Courtroom A.

"He demonstrates his inability to live in the world by leaving a trail of victims in his wake," Nichols said.

Nichols listed name after name of underage girls to the jury. Summary documents that the jury saw earlier, testified to by law enforcement personnel, had been displayed Monday.

"These are not names and numbers on a chart," Nichols said.

Documents said that Jeffs had been a part of at least 550 bigamous marriages, not including ones to himself, and that 67 of those had been to underage girls. Documents stated Jeffs had take 78 illegal wives, 24 of them underage girls, with some having come from Canada and some 12 years old. In one instance of underage marriage, he married two 12-year-old girls to himself in one day, the documents record.

The prosecutor also brought up a house labeled the "Big House" in blueprints, and which allegedly housed some of Jeffs' 79 wives and their children.

The FLDS sanctions polygamy through "celestial" or "spiritual" marriage to circumvent bigamy laws.

"The state of Texas also has its big house," Nichols said. "And this is where you belong for the rest of your days," addressing a Jeffs who wasn't in the courtroom.

Nichols said the trial wasn't meant to persecute a religion, and he referred to testimony about how Jeffs' father, whom Jeffs' took over for as leader, married off women around the age of 20. Under Jeffs, he took girls as young as 12 years old, and had a "quorum of 12" underage wives, as one document allegedly recording Jeffs states.

On Thursday, the jury found Jeffs guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl with whom he fathered a child.

Warren Jeffs' next trial is for a first-degree felony bigamy charge, and it is scheduled for mid-October.

The next trial of an FLDS member from evidence that came from the ranch raid is scheduled for Aug. 22: for Wendell Loy Nielsen with three counts of a third-degree felony bigamy charge.

Nichols took part of his opening arguments to say that the trial was not against the FLDS church, and that Jeffs had perverted his own religion with underage marriages.

"The evidence in this case shows this is not a prosecution of a people," Nichols said. "This is a prosecution to protect a people."

Rebecca Musser, a witness who had been the 19th wife of Jeffs' father before running away from the threat of being married to Jeffs, said the same.

"What I've witnessed here is not the persecution of a church," Musser said in the first statement she ever made to the media, wearing a bright red dress to as a symbol of freedom, she said.

Walpole said there are several issues that an appellate court could consider — whether the judge should've been recused, whether evidence should be admitted — and he said he advised his client of those rights, but he said he is not representing Jeffs further.

Jeffs may be eligible for parole after several decades, staff at the TDCJ said.

"Jeffs won't be eligible for parole for at least 45 years," said Jason Clark, spokesman for TDCJ. "By then, Jeffs would be 100 years old."

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