Woman who says Warren Jeffs forced her to marry her cousin at 14 can sue

Associated Press/March 24, 2016

The Utah supreme court cleared the way for a woman to sue for millions of dollars in damages after she said polygamous leader Warren Jeffs forced her to marry her cousin when she was 14.

Elissa Wall can seek the payout from the sect’s communal property trust, which is now controlled by the state, the high court decidedWednesday. Her testimony helped convict Jeffs in 2007 of being an accomplice to her rape, though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality.

Jeffs is now serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives.

The court’s decision comes as the federal government goes after the group on multiple fronts, including court cases alleging food stamp fraud and child labor in Utah. A jury in Phoenix also found that the twin polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border denied basic rights such as police protection to nonbelievers.

Against that backdrop, Wall’s lawyer Alan Mortensen said the ruling on her lawsuit will help hold accountable the leaders of the group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“It’s a further acknowledgement that the rules and laws of the United States and the state of Utah apply to everyone,” Mortensen saidThursday.

The Associated Press does not generally identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Wall has spoken publicly and wrote a book about her experiences.

Jeffs does not have a lawyer, and the group does not have a spokesperson or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted.

A lawyer for the property trust, Jeffrey Shields, did not have immediate comment on the ruling. He asked the Utah supreme court to toss the lawsuit in a hearing last fall, arguing that Wall came to a secret agreement with her former husband to help her win money from the trust.

Her onetime husband, Allen Steed, previously said the sexual relationship was not forced, but he agreed not to stand in the way of her lawsuit if she approved a lighter plea deal to resolve a rape charge against him, Shields said.

Wall’s lawyers say Steed was 19 at the time of the 2001 marriage, and sect leaders who held sway over him are to blame for what happened.

The court decided the agreement appears to be legal and should not derail the lawsuit.

The case now goes back to a lower court. While some estimates have put the possible damages as high as $40m, a judge determined it will more likely top out at $5m, Wall’s lawyer said.

She will be suing United Effort Plan trust, which holds nearly all the land, homes and businesses in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

Estimated to be worth about $110m, the trust was built by the polygamous group to fulfill a belief in holding property communally. The Utah attorney general took it over in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement.

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