Bigamy trial's jury deliberating

Former FLDS leader accused of 3 felonies

San Angelo Standard-Times, Texas/March 27, 2012

MIDLAND — The jury is out in the bigamy trial of a former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

On Tuesday, the fifth day of the trial of Wendell Loy Nielsen, jurors were allowed to go home for the evening after about

45 minutes of deliberation.

Nielsen, 71, was a leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He is accused of three counts of felony bigamy, allegedly having married three women, two of them on the same day, in addition to his legal wife.

David Botsford, Nielsen's Austin defense attorney, did not challenge the premise that "celestial marriages" did occur, but he told the jury those marriages cannot count as the kind of marriage required to violate Texas bigamy statutes.

"There has been no evidence that the sealing would constitute a marriage under Texas law," Botsford said in final arguments.

The FLDS practices polygamy by sanctioning multiple "spiritual" or "celestial" marriages in a ceremonial procedure known to the polygamists as "sealing."

Jurors have learned from documents that the three women whom Nielsen is accused of illegally marrying are Ilene Jeffs, who would have been 43 at the time of the "marriage," Margaret Lucille Jessop Johnson, who would have been 58 at the time of her "marriage" and Veda Barlow Johnson, who would've been 65 at the time of her "marriage."

Linda Black, whom he married in 1965, was Nielsen's legal wife.

Botsford argued from testimony of former FLDS members that the celestial marriages were meant for women's salvation, because a woman must always have a man in charge over her in a household, according to FLDS beliefs.

"It's all for a woman's eternal salvation," Botsford said.

Special Prosecutor Eric Nichols argued that the celestial marriages and subsequent living together would have been enough to make a celestial marriage a common law marriage, per testimony from family law professor Jack Sampson of the University of Texas School of Law.

Overall, the FLDS marriages are marriages as generally and lawfully understood, Nichols said.

"I didn't invent this phrase but I'm going to use it," Nichols said in the second part of his closing statement. "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, talks like a duck, what is it? It's a duck. … This is not about religion. ... You have something called a marriage, and that is the duck."

Botsford argued that the women weren't held out to society in general as being married. Holding out as being married is something required for conduct to be considered bigamy, according to the statute. Nichols argued that holding themselves out as being married to the FLDS community at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, where the marriages were alleged to have occurred and which by 2008 was home to several hundred people, was enough.

Nielsen was once president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Corp. in Utah before stepping down when FLDS supreme leader Warren Jeffs assumed the position in early 2011.

Jeffs, who was convicted last year, is serving a sentence in the Texas Criminal Justice System Palestine unit of life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl.

Law enforcement authorities raided the YFZ Ranch in Schleicher County in April 2008 after receiving reports of sexual abuse occurring at the FLDS compound. Twelve men, including Warren Jeffs, were indicted and 10 have been convicted of crimes such as child sexual assault and bigamy.

This is the first bigamy case to go to trial. Others have pleaded no contest and accepted sentences of seven to eight years.

Nielsen had also pleaded no contest, but he later withdrew his plea because he didn't like the terms of his probation and he wasn't able to transfer his probation to Colorado, where he has family.

According to extraneous offense documents from the state, Nielsen allegedly married 34 women in addition to his legal wife. Among those he allegedly married were sets of mothers and daughters and groups of sisters.

The document also states that Nielsen performing marriage ceremonies that wed 16- and 12-year-old girls to Warren Jeffs, that Nielsen has been named a witness in 258 allegedly bigamous marriages, and that he has been involved in the marriage of 37 girls ages 12 through 16, with 29 of them having been bigamous.

Evidence for that may come out in the punishment phase of the trial, if reached. The jury is set to return to deliberate at 9

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