Salt Lake City — Impaneling a jury to hear the highly publicized rape case against a polygamous sect leader could prove difficult, some observers and legal experts say.
Attorneys will ask 300 people on Friday to fill out a multipage questionnaire to help determine their suitability to serve as jurors in the trial of Warren Jeffs, 51, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jeffs is charged with two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice for his alleged role in coercing the 2001 marriage and rape of a 14-year-old follower by her cousin.
Jurors will be asked to decide whether Jeffs knowingly encouraged the girl's 19-year-old cousin to commit unlawful sex with her against her will, according to proposed jury instructions prosecutors have filed with the court.
Jeffs attracted considerable media coverage as a fugitive for nearly two years and after his August 2006 arrest during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas.
"There's been so much media coverage it's going to be difficult to find people that have not already formed an opinion," Provo attorney Randy Spencer said. "That could put the defense at a disadvantage. The people that they find who claim to not have much knowledge of the case may not be typical peers."
And although the case is not related to polygamy — the religious marriage between the girl and her cousin was monogamous — jurors might see the practice of plural marriage as the elephant in the room.
"How could they not?" said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta defense attorney and author with ties to the FLDS community. "You're in a community down there that's heavily LDS, where lots of people have ancestors that were polygamists. So they're not going to see it as weird, but some are going to be embarrassed by it."
The FLDS continue to believe plural marriage promises glorification in heaven. The fundamentalist church's members number an estimated 10,000, living mostly in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The arranged marriages often involve underage girls and older men.
Jeffs has led the FLDS church since 2002. Followers see him as a prophet who communicates with God and holds dominion over their salvation. Former church members say the one-time school principal reigns with an iron fist, demanding perfect obedience from followers.
Prosecutors contend Jeffs' stature as church prophet left the 14-year-old girl powerless to do anything but submit sexually to her husband. They contend the girl twice told Jeffs she didn't want to be married or have sex, but was instructed it was her "spiritual duty" because the union was sanctioned by God.
At 14, the girl was legally unable to consent to sex.
Jeffs' attorney Wally Bugden contends Jeffs is being prosecuted for his faith and that the counsel he provided the girl did not differ from advice religious leaders from other denominations might give.
Attorneys intend to interview prospective jurors Monday behind the closed doors. Opening statements in the trial are planned for Wednesday.
The FLDS church practices polygamy and represents itself as an offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church, based in Salt Lake City. The Mormons, however, disavow any connection and renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of statehood.