Polygamy Verdict Set Precedent

Law: Utah is likely to go after others. Backers say the practice may go even further underground.

Los Angeles Times/May 20, 2001
By Julie Cart

Denver -- As three of his five wives looked on, sobbing, a Utah jury found outspoken polygamist Tom Green guilty of four counts of bigamy--bringing to an end the state's first polygamy prosecution in nearly 50 years.

But according to those on both sides of Utah's plural marriage debate, Friday's verdict is just the start. They say the closely watched case will generate a greater focus on the secretive practice that gained its foothold in Utah with the arrival of Mormon settlers in the 1840s.

The effect is expected to be twofold: Polygamy supporters say that leaders of the isolated religious communities where plural marriage is practiced will not disavow it, but merely become more withdrawn. And legal experts say the conviction of Green, 52, gives Utah prosecutors new ammunition to go after the state's estimated 20,000 polygamists.

If nothing else, the case has given public airing to one of Utah's open secrets. One attorney called it a signal of major social change in a state that for decades has been reluctant to challenge an institution grounded in religious beliefs.

"The precedent has been set, and I'm here to tell you, this thing is not going to go away," Douglas White, an attorney for an anti-polygamy group based in Salt Lake City, said Saturday. "This decision is going to last 100 years in Utah, that's how important it is. There are a lot of prosecutors in the state--particularly in the southern part, where polygamy abounds--who have watched this. Now, they've been shown how it's done."

It was Juab County Atty. David Leavitt, himself a descendant of polygamists and the brother of Utah's governor, who devised the novel method to prosecute Green.

In a practice common among polygamists, Green married his first, or head wife, but then married and divorced the next four, called sister wives. Leavitt argued that since Green and the women were cohabiting, all five relationships could be considered common-law marriages. He then used those "marriages" to establish bigamy.

Although Utah's Constitution outlaws polygamy, there are no statutes that prohibit it. Bigamy, however, is illegal. That nuance has prevented charges against polygamists in the past, prosecutors say.

"Polygamy and bigamy are legally synonymous," said White, a former county prosecutor. "This will now give pause to those men who are thinking about taking 12- and 13-year-old girls as wives. The Green decision will have a major, major chilling effect in the polygamous communities. These guys know the risk is too great."

Green lives in a remote part of the western Utah desert with his five wives and 25 children in a compound of trailer homes and discarded vehicles. He partially supports the family--which receives welfare payments--on his income from selling magazine subscriptions.

His conviction on the bigamy counts, as well as one count of failing to pay child support, could bring him up to 25 years in prison and $25,000 in fines when he is sentenced June 27. He also faces first-degree felony child rape charges, stemming from his relationship with one of his wives, who was 13 when he married her. No trial date has been set.

The mere fact that Green's case got to court was a victory for those who for years have sought to draw attention to what they say are the evils of polygamy.

"I just thought, 'Hallelujah!'," said Rowenna Erickson, a former plural wife and a founder of the group Tapestry Against Polygamy, which seeks to assist women who want to leave polygamy. "It is only the beginning. For years, nobody heard us or paid attention to us about polygamy. . . . [Now] other county prosecutors, they will feel better about going after these cases."

Polygamists generally are secretive and live in insular, church-centered communities. But Green drew attention to himself by appearing on such television shows as "Dateline NBC" and "The Jerry Springer Show." He said he wanted to crusade against what he saw as the prejudice against polygamy, which so-called fundamentalist Mormons believe is the only way to achieve celestial reward. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed polygamy in 1890.

Green remains free on bail and has vowed to appeal the verdict. He says he'll fight his case on constitutional grounds of religious freedom.

"It's an honor to go to prison for my beliefs, but I hope I don't go to prison," Green said after the verdict was read about midnight in a courtroom in Provo, Utah.

Green's high profile has irked many people in polygamous communities, who have been accustomed to the state's tacit "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy. His outspokenness, and now the guilty verdict, may drive polygamists further underground, some say.

"The majority of us want to be left alone," said Raymond Carlson, a self-proclaimed fundamentalist Mormon who lives in Lehi, Utah, and is a friend of Green's. "The elements of the world are against us, particularly the government of the United States. We want to live in secrecy and be left alone, with the exception of Tom Green. Tom's worst enemy was Tom himself."

Carlson said that polygamist leaders monitored the trial and that they have concerns that law enforcement officials may now target their followers for arrest. He referred to a botched raid by federal agents in the community of Short Creek, near the Utah-Arizona line in 1953. Polygamists still have bitter feelings about the raid, in which men were taken to jail and families were separated.

"If prosecutors in the state of Utah continue on the path they are on in seeking us out, I hate to tell you what might happen," he said. "To put it bluntly--the mountains could come down upon them. I think they are going to get shook up. I think we are in store for a lot of things if we don't repent and return to the way of God."

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