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Polygamous leader guilty of being accomplice to rape
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

ST. GEORGE - Eight jurors who found polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs guilty on two felony charges Tuesday said the verdict came down to two things: the teen bride's age and the law.

"We all had the opinion he was pretty much her only ticket for getting out of the marriage," said Gerald Munk, 36, a St. George City maintenance worker.

Added Ben Coulter, 26: "He ultimately held all the keys to say, 'You don't have to be in this marriage and there won't be any consequences.' "

Jeffs stood with his attorneys as the verdict was read; he later sat, his face as impassive as it had been throughout the six-day trial, blinking hard.

Asked by 5th District Judge James L. Shumate if he wanted to have a presentencing report, Jeffs said: "I will do what my lawyers recommend."

The two charges of rape as an accomplice are punishable by five years to life in prison. Shumate set a sentencing date of Nov. 20. Jeffs will remain incarcerated at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane until he is sentenced.

Jeffs' defense team hurried from the courthouse after the verdict. "Of course I'm disappointed," attorney Walter F. Bugden said as he moved through a mob of reporters.

Jeffs, 51, is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has about 6,000 members in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Other sect members are in Texas, Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota and British Columbia.

He has led the group since September 2002, when he succeeded his late father, Rulon T. Jeffs. The sect believes marriages are arranged by God through the prophet and that sex should occur only for procreation.

Fifteen members of Jeffs' faith left the courthouse after the verdict as they had for weeks: Silently slipping away while chased by cameras.

A more credible witness

The rape charges were based on a marriage Jeffs conducted in 2001 between Elissa Wall, then 14, and Allen Steed, her 19-year-old cousin.

Jurors who spoke to media in the courtroom after the verdict said they found Wall more credible than Steed - particularly regarding when and how their first sexual encounter occurred.

The jurors also said they found the prosecution's second closing argument persuasive. Still, three jurors entered deliberations ready to vote not guilty.

They eventually joined the others in reaching a "guilty decision" on the first count before splitting again on the second one. It was a heated debate, they said.

"There were a couple times I thought fists were going to be thrown," said Diedre Shaw, 32, a St. George homemaker. A marker was tossed across the room at one point.

Shaw, who was initially in the "not guilty" camp, said the second count was difficult for her because of its nonspecific time frame and the fact Wall admitted she "sugared up" her relationship by agreeing to sexual intimacy during this period.

Prosecutors said the first count of rape occurred between the April 23, 2001, marriage and May 12, 2001. They listed the second count as occurring between May 13, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2003.

The panel left the courthouse Monday night - after 13 hours of deliberations over two days - still deadlocked, they said.

Juror Andrea Harold was excused Tuesday morning after Shaw raised questions about an answer she gave on her jury questionnaire. Harold was replaced by alternate Rachel Karimi, and deliberations continued.

The jurors said Karimi, a 28-year-old homemaker, "walked into a fight." She provided a "fresh look," they said, which helped the panel reach consensus about three hours later. The verdict was reached shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday.

"We started at the beginning and listened to her feelings about the case," said David Finch, a 64-year-old Ivins retiree who served as jury foreman. "She brought up points we hadn't thought about."

Focused on the laws

Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap had argued Jeffs, then-first counselor in the faith, was the "mouthpiece of God" and had ignored Wall's objections to the marriage.

Later, when she asked to be freed from the marriage and said her husband was "doing things to me I don't understand,'' Jeffs sent her back to him. He threatened loss of heavenly salvation as a consequence for disobedience, Belnap said.

"He placed Elissa Wall in a situation where she felt she had no choice," he said.

After the verdict, jurors referred repeatedly to Jeffs as the prophet - a post actually held by his father at the time - who assigned marriages and could undo them.

"When things went wrong, he wasn't there to help her," said Gerald "Lynn" Maxwell, 40, a draftsman who lives in La Verkin.

Wall's civil lawsuit, which the defense had described as a motive for bringing the rape allegation, was easily set aside by the jury. So was the lack of a charge against Steed or involvement of others in Wall's marriage.

"I was leaning more toward blaming Allen," said Shaw, adding that other jurors kept reminding her he wasn't on trial.

It was the laws that Jeffs had broken that mattered, Maxwell said. And the jury instructions, which they read "over and over," focused them on those laws.

Claims of persecution rejected

Jeffs' attorneys - Bugden and Tara Isaacson of Salt Lake City and Richard Wright of Las Vegas - characterized the case as a political campaign against an unpopular religion with their client as a scapegoat.

"Over time, the story evolved from a bad marriage to a story of rape," Bugden said, adding that it changed only after Wall contacted a civil attorney. He argued the faith focuses on faith, not force.

And while Wall's stepfather, mother and sisters encouraged her marriage, only Jeffs had been singled out for blame, he said.

"The idea that this is all laid at the feet of Warren Jeffs is simply not fair," Bugden said in his closing statement. "I don't care what the religion is, no one thought this was going to lead to rape.

''They thought in time they were going to rise in love."

But jurors rejected the claim that the case was about religious persecution. "I don't think it was about that but I think it played a part in it," said juror Heather Newkirk, 32, a massage therapist.

She later said serving as a juror in the case was "very interesting" and made her "appreciate her husband a lot. . . . I'm just happy to have the freedoms and choices that I do.'

The jury found Wall's sister, Rebecca Musser, a decisive witness. "Rebecca Musser, that woman made eye contact and she shot fire," Newkirk said.

Looking ahead

One expert said he was "mildly surprised" by the outcome. Daniel Medwed, a University of Utah law professor, said he did not think the charges were a perfect fit with the facts of the case.

"Feeling he had done something wrong is a little bit of a stretch to saying he was an accomplice to rape," Medwed said.

He said Jeffs is likely in for a long stay in prison and would be "quite surprised if Jeffs ever got out."

After the verdict, Belnap, who was assisted in the case by lead prosecutor Ryan Shaum and Craig Barlow, an assistant attorney general, thanked the jury for carefully considering the evidence.

He described Wall's courage in coming forward as a "highlight of his entire life," calling her a ''pioneer.'' Wall, he said, "withstood attacks on her credibility and reputation with honor and dignity."

Belnap hinted there may be other prosecutions in the future.

Arizona and federal authorities, who have cases pending against Jeffs, will likely wait to see what sentence Shumate hands down before deciding how to handle their prosecutions.

brooke@sltrib.com

---

* NATE CARLISLE contributed to this story.

WARREN JEFFS: Guilty

FLDS leader convicted on two counts of being the accomplice to rape of a 14-year-old

Elissa Wall's youth

Looking ahead

* Sentencing is set for Nov. 20.

* In Arizona, Jeffs faces eight accomplice charges stemming from alleged sexual assaults in 2002 and 2003 of two underage brides.

* In Utah, he faces a federal charge of flight to avoid prosecution.

Claims by defense attorneys that the reluctant 14-year-old bride had consented to sex - and even initiated it - were not credible, jurors decided.

The letter of the law

As a religious leader in her faith, Warren Jeffs could have - and should have - released Wall from the rocky marriage, jurors said.

* Sentencing is set for Nov. 20.

* In Arizona, Jeffs faces eight accomplice charges stemming from alleged sexual assaults in 2002 and 2003 of two underage brides.

* In Utah, he faces a federal charge of flight to avoid prosecution.

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