Polygamist 'prophet' found guilty of aiding rape

CNN/September 25, 2007

St. George, Utah -- Polygamist sect leader Warren Steed Jeffs was found guilty Tuesday of being an accomplice to rape for using his religious authority to push a 14-year-old girl into a marriage she did not want.

Jeffs stood with his hands folded and didn't appear to react as the verdict was read.

A few feet away, his accuser had tears in her eyes.

"When I was young my mother taught me that evil flourishes when good men do nothing," said Elissa Wall, the prosecution's star witness, who was "placed" by Jeffs in an arranged marriage at 14.

She told reporters that the trial "was not about religion or a vendetta, it was simply about child abuse and preventing further abuse."

"The easy thing would have been to do nothing, but I followed my heart," she said, urging other girls and young women who feel trapped by polygamy to come forward.

Prosecutor Brock Belnap praised Wall's courage. "It has been an honor to stand alongside a woman who spoke out to stop a practice of abuse against enormous odds and against enormous power," he said.

The conviction on two counts could send Jeffs to prison for the rest of his life. Sentencing was set for November 20.

"This verdict is a victory for the many victims who have been hurt by Warren Jeffs and have been too afraid to speak out," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said in a written statement.

The five men and three women returned the verdict shortly after 4 p.m. ET following about 16 hours of sometimes tumultuous deliberations. One juror was replaced Tuesday morning with an alternate.

Asked about a report that jurors nearly came to blows, jury foreman David Finch told CNN: "It wasn't as dramatic as it sounded."

Juror Ben Coulter told CNN that he initially planned to vote to acquit Jeffs, "until I actually got a chance to look over the laws and read them over and over again."

Jeffs, 51, is president and "prophet" of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect, based in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, claims some 10,000 members.

Because of the possibility of a hostile reaction from Jeffs' followers, police sharpshooters were posted on top of nearby cliffs after it was announced the jury had reached a verdict.

Prosecutors charged that Jeffs pressured Wall to marry her 19-year-old cousin, despite her objections. He had been a school headmaster and was the son of the sect's previous prophet, Rulon Jeffs, who died in 2002.

The defense countered that authorities were persecuting Jeffs because of his religious beliefs, which include practicing plural marriage as the way to heaven. "His church, his religious beliefs is what's on trial here, and it's being dressed up as a rape," attorney Walter Bugden argued.

The case went to the jury Friday, following five days of testimony. The key witnesses were the reluctant child bride, Wall, and her husband in the arranged "spiritual" marriage, Allen Steed.

The two witnesses -- she testifying for the prosecution, he for the defense -- gave conflicting accounts of Jeffs' influence over them and their 2001 marriage. Jeffs performed the wedding ceremony in a Caliente, Nevada, motel room.

"Warren Jeffs told them to go forward and multiply and replenish the Earth, and that is why that man is an accomplice to rape," prosecutor Belnap told jurors in his closing argument.

Wall spent three days on the stand, frequently sobbing as she described how she felt trapped in a marriage she did not want, to a man she did not like.

She said she repeatedly told Jeffs that she did not want to be married and was uncomfortable with her new husband's sexual advances. Jeffs advised her to pray and to submit to her husband, learn to love him, and bear his children -- or risk losing her "eternal salvation," she said.

She said she initially avoided her husband, hiding in her mother's bedroom. She testified she finally had sex several weeks into her marriage after Steed told her "it was time to be a wife and do your duty."

Afterward, she said, she hid in a bathroom, feeling "dirty and used."

She initially was referred to as "Jane Doe" to protect her privacy because of the sexual nature of the charges. But after the jury received the case, her lawyers released her name to the public.

Steed, who has not been charged with a crime, denied forcing himself on his bride, saying she initiated their first sexual encounter. He said she was nice to him in private, but cold in public.

He said Jeffs counseled them to learn to love each other. Steed cried on the stand as he described his frustration at being rejected.

The 3½-year marriage ended in 2004, after she became pregnant with another man's child. She left the church and is remarried.

Judge James Shumate instructed jurors that under Utah law, a 14-year-old can consent to sex in some circumstances. But there can be no consent, the judge said, if a person under 18 is coerced by someone at least three years older.

Someone can be found guilty if he or she holds a position of "special trust" over another person under 18, the judge instructed.

Jeffs also faces multiple counts in Arizona of being an accomplice to incest and sex with minors.

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