Polygamist sentenced to 10 years for sex assault of teen 'bride'

Published November 10, 2009 6:30 pm
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A Schleicher County jury deliberated for six hours Tuesday before sentencing FLDS member Raymond Merril Jessop to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl five years ago.

Under Texas law, Jessop must serve half that time -- five years -- before he is eligible for parole. He also must pay a $8,000 fine.

Asked about the decision as he was escorted back to the Schleicher County Jail, Jessop said, "I'm at peace."

He also answered "yes" when asked whether he felt his trial was religious persecution.

Jessop, 38, will remain in the county jail, where he has been held since the jury found him guilty last Thursday, until transfer paperwork arrives from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said Jessop will then be moved to San Angelo for processing and assignment to a prison "somewhere in Texas."

Fifty-first District Judge Barbara Walther announced the punishment decision at 6 p.m.

Prosecutor Eric Nichols of the Texas Office of the Attorney General said "justice was served" by the jury, which heard 24 witnesses over the course of the nearly two-week trial.

He praised the coordinated law enforcement effort that began in April 2008 at the polygamous sect's Yearning For Zion Ranch, home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and will continue through 11 more trials set to run over the next year.

The next trial, that of Allan Keate, who faces the same charge, is to begin in three weeks.

In Jessop's trial, prosecutors used the victim's photo album, documents seized from ranch and DNA tests to prove he had taken the woman, then a 15-year-old, as a spiritual wife in August 2004. She conceived a child in November and gave birth to a daughter on Aug. 19, 2005.

The state also showed the woman, now 21, had previously been married to Jessop's brother when she was 15.

The state had asked the jury to give Jessop the maximum sentence -- 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. But Nichols said he was satisfied with the outcome.

"In the state of Texas we have jury punishment," said Nichols, adding neither the state nor the court makes that call. "It is the jury that decides. Yes, justice is done whenever a jury in Texas makes that decision."

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued this statement: "The jury in Schleicher County gave Raymond Merril Jessop a 10-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting a child. Despite the defendant's plea for probation, the jury recognized the seriousness of his crime and decided he deserved a decade in prison. We are grateful to the jurors for their commitment to justice."

During closing arguments earlier Tuesday, prosecutor Angela Goodwin told the jury they had the power to send a strong message with their verdict and deter others "in the community, in the country, who might think about coming to Schleicher County" and committing a similar crime. Probation would amount to a "get out of jail free card wrapped up in a bow," she said.

The sect claims it follows the laws of God, Goodwin said. She held up a Texas code book in front of the jury and said, "These are the laws of man. These are the laws that need to be followed."

Goodwin showed a photo of Jessop sitting at a kitchen table, a new 15-year-old wife by his side as his victim stood shadowed in the background.

"By your verdict you'll be able to bring a voice to that lady who is standing in the shadows there," Goodwin said.

Nichols made a passionate plea for the jurors to be tough as they recalled all the evidence they heard over the past two weeks. They had been able, he said, to go beyond the sect's locked gates, down the long road into the ranch, into homes and the secret Temple vault.

"You are not in a position to avert your eyes or close your ears to what you have seen" and heard in the case, he said.

Nichols asked them to stand "strong and firm and by your verdict, which is the only way you can communicate with Raymond Jessop, that you can look him in the eye and say, 'No sir, we will not turn a blind eye. No sir, Mr. Jessop, we have seen, we have listened, we haven't closed our eyes and now Mr. Jessop, it is time for you to listen.' "

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop called the trial's outcome "bittersweet" and an example of a "religious war they have chosen to take out on the FLDS."

He said the conviction now allows an appeal of the state's initial investigation at the ranch, which the sect maintains was unlawful.

"We have been waiting for an ability to go to the court of appeals to show them what they did to our community," he said. "The tragic part is, yes, we have Raymond in jail. But I'll tell you, it's a bittersweet day. I'd rather have Raymond in jail than hundreds of little children locked in a coliseum or stuck in Fort Concho.

"What about the thousands of victims they've created? Where was the victim? They knew they didn't have one on April 3; they don't have one today," he said.

Defense attorney Brandon T. Hudson said the jury's decision was a "victory."

"I don't think they (the state) got the verdict they were expecting," he said. But, "I don't think Raymond deserves any time in prison."

During their closing arguments, defense attorneys Mark Stevens and Hudson reminded jurors that they had been selected because of their willingness to consider the possibility of probation for Jessop. They asked them to make that their choice now.

Stevens told them that while they had found Jessop guilty, a verdict the defense would not quarrel with, the state had not provided any evidence that the crime was one of sexual violence, or that Jessop "harmed a single hair" on anyone's head.

He repeated what four residents who had hired Jessop to work on their homes had said about him: That he was a "good man, extremely truthful, honest and helpful."

Jessop was not a "predator who preys on little children," the type of person who might deserve a maximum sentence.

Four years ago, he reminded them, it was legal for a girl the age of Jessop's victim to marry with parental permission.

"What evidence did they present to you that this wasn't consensual?" he asked.

Giving Jessop probation would place him under Walther's supervision, whom Stevens described as "not a soft touch. Judge Walther can be trusted to supervise this case."

But the jury opted not to give Jessop probation.

Defense attorney Brandon Hudson asked the jury to not punish Jessop for what others said or his unpopular religion.

"They want you to go back in that room and put a big, fat rubber stamp on what they did," Hudson said, referring to the April 2008 investigation.

Ask yourselves, Hudson said, "What do you think is right for Raymond, not for anyone else, for Raymond, the dad."

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