Polygamist leader convicted of child sex assault

SAN ANGELO, Texas - August 5, 2011

It was those meticulous records - including an audiotape of what prosecutors said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl he'd taken as a bride - that helped authorities secure two child sex assault convictions against the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Now, prosecutors hope those same records will help bring a life prison sentence to a man regarded by his followers as God's spokesman on Earth. The West Texas jurors who convicted Jeffs began determining his appropriate punishment Friday and were expected to hear evidence about scores of alleged crimes not mentioned during his trial.

For starters, Jeffs had 78 wives in addition to his legal spouse, and 24 of them were under age 17, said Eric Nichols, lead prosecutor for the Texas Attorney General's office, which is handling the case. Nichols also said he would show that Jeffs committed six other sexual assaults and either witnessed or performed more than 500 polygamist marriages, as well as 67 other sect marriages involving underage girls.

Jeffs spent years evading arrest, crisscrossing the country as a fugitive who eventually made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list before his capture in 2006. He excommunicated 60 church members he saw as a threat to his leadership, breaking up 300 families while stripping them of property and "reassigning" wives and children, Nichols said.

All of that is separate from the criminal charges on which he was convicted Thursday. Jurors deliberated for 3½ hours before finding Jeffs guilty of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he'd wed during what his sect considers "spiritual marriages."

Prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with the older victim and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting the younger girl. They played other tapes in which Jeffs was heard instructing as many as a dozen of his young wives on how to please him sexually - and thus, he told them, please God.

"You might have asked yourselves ... a lot of people may ask, why would someone record sex?" Nichols told jurors during closing arguments. "This individual considers himself to be the prophet. Everything he did, hour after hour, he was required to keep a record of that."

Jeffs' sect has more than 10,000 members nationwide who believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

Both victims entered into unions with Jeffs willingly, and did not participate in the trial against him. But Nichols said in his closing statement that the crimes were so egregious that under Texas law, convictions did not require the victim to bring charges.

Jeffs burned through seven lawyers in six months, then insisted on representing himself after jury selection last week - turning a high-profile case into what felt at times like a surreal religious revival.

He quoted God as threatening all involved with a Biblical scourge if the case wasn't halted immediately, then later filed an unsuccessful motion to remove state District Judge Barbara Walther from the case, saying the Lord visited him in his jail cell and said Walther was afflicted from a crippling disease that would soon kill her. The judge suffered polio as a child and walks with a limp.

Jeffs stood almost completely mute during his closing argument, staring at the floor for all but a few seconds of the half hour he was allotted. He finally turned and looked toward prosecutors and the jury, most of whom avoided direct eye contact with him. "I am at peace" he mumbled, then said no more. The only noise in the courtroom was the creaking of wooden benches brimming with spectators.

On Friday, he interrupted his sentencing hearing to read in a booming voice a statement that quoted God as imploring Walther to "cease" the trial. He also asked to be excused from the hearing in protest.

Walter told Jeffs that unless he refrained from such outbursts, she would have him removed and appoint an attorney to take his place. The judge called a recess and walked out as Jeffs tried to speak.

Jeffs had claimed his religious rights were being trampled after police raided his sect's remote Texas compound, called Yearning For Zion, in April 2008. They found women wearing frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century and saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant.

The call to an abuse hotline that spurred the raid turned out to be a hoax, and more than 400 children who had been placed in protective custody were eventually returned to their families. But authorities found a small mountain of documents, including hundreds of pages of Jeffs' personal journals, which he called his "Priesthood record."

That helped bring sexual assault and bigamy charges against a dozen men from the sect. All seven of those who were prosecuted before Jeffs were convicted, and they received prison sentences of between six and 75 years.

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