Prosecutors find it difficult to get testimony in polygamy cases

Associated Press/August 30, 2006
By Jaques Billeaud

Phoenix -- Even with this week's arrest of the leader of a polygamist sect, prosecutors said Wednesday that they will continue to face difficulties in getting victims to testify in their crackdown on plural marriages.

It's a problem prosecutors in Arizona and Utah have faced in trying to bring cases against members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Colorado City, Ariz., and neighboring Hildale, Utah.

On the day after church leader Warren Jeffs was arrested in Nevada, a sexual assault trial in Kingman, Ariz., of another member of the sect was put on hold when the alleged victim refused to testify.

The other sect member, 33-year-old Randolph Barlow, is charged with sexual assault for his spiritual marriage with the alleged victim when she was 16.

"I have to have her testimony to convict Warren Jeffs," Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith told KGMN radio in Kingman on Tuesday. "If she's going to refuse to testify against Randy Barlow, why would anybody think I could get her to testify against Warren Jeffs?"

Authorities have alleged that Jeffs, who will first be prosecuted on charges in Utah and then in Arizona, had arranged marriages between underage girls and older men. The sect practices polygamy and broke away from the main Mormon church.

Prosecutors said victims in polygamy cases face powerful influence against cooperating with authorities from family members and community members who consider Jeffs a prophet of God.

"They pretty much have to renounce their entire heritage to go against the prophet," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, one of the prosecutors involved in the crackdown. "That has got to be hard to do."

Goddard said his office has had cases where prosecutors had proof of sect members marrying underage girls but lacked a victim to testify at trial.

Mohave County prosecutors won a conviction in July of a sect member without the testimony of the victim. Authorities had presented birth certificates to show the man on trial, who was 33 years old at the time of the offense, was the father of a child whose mother was 17 when she gave birth in 2001.

Smith was unavailable to comment Wednesday, but Goddard said he believes that prosecutors can move forward with the handful of cases against alleged polygamists in Colorado City.

Prosecutors said that while the arrest of Jeffs won't make that reluctance disappear, it might help encourage victims to come forward, because they can see that the church leader is being held accountable.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said it took courage for witnesses to forward in civil and criminal cases involving the church and some of its members.

"It will take great courage for them to testify in these proceedings," Shurtleff said. "We congratulate them because the message is nobody is above the law."

Flora Jessop, a former member of the church who remains skeptical about whether Jeffs' arrest will significantly reduce the church's polygamy problems, said the key to building the case against Jeffs was a willingness of victims to talk.

"It's a matter of using the window of opportunity that we have to get resources, education, help to the women and children who do want out, releasing that stranglehold of fear that he has on their minds, enough to get them help," Jessop said.

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