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DNA evidence, 'sex tape' implicate Jeffs, prosecutors say

Published July 29, 2011 7:23 am

Court •Polygamous-sect leader is allowed to represent himself in trial, but remains silent before jury.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

San Angelo, Texas • After he fired his team of high-profile attorneys, Warren Jeffs sat silent Thursday as Texas prosecutors began to lay out evidence that he sexually assaulted two underage girls — including an audiotape of one alleged assault on a 12-year-old.

The state also has DNA evidence that he fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl, said prosecutor Eric Nichols.

Jeffs, the 55-year-old leader of a polygamous sect, is accused of taking both girls as plural wives.

As court opened Thursday morning, Jeffs insisted upon representing himself in a rambling 30-minute speech.

With his hands clasped in front of him, chin down, Jeffs looked straight ahead and paused frequently as he spoke in a lilting, sermon-like voice. He told the judge he wanted more time to prepare his own "pure defense," saying he wanted the "truth to be presented in a way that entails the knowledge thereof."

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther reluctantly granted the request.

"You have assembled perhaps one of the most impressive legal teams this court has ever seen, and perhaps ever seen in the whole state of Texas," she said.

But she ordered the attorneys to remain on standby, in case Jeffs decides to "reconsider this unwise decision."

Walther denied Jeffs' request for more time to prepare. When the time came for his opening statement, Jeffs remained silent.

He stayed silent, hands in his lap and eyes half closed, as Nichols began presenting evidence. Jeffs remained unresponsive as prosecutors established the chain of custody for DNA tests done on himself and the 15-year-old alleged victim, as well as the child Jeffs is accused of fathering with that girl in 2005.

Jeffs made no argument to suppress the evidence gathered from a Cadillac Escalade he was riding in when he was arrested in Nevada in 2006. That evidence, also entered Thursday, includes an external hard drive believed to contain the audio recording of the alleged sexual assault on the 12-year-old girl.

After an hour of Jeffs' silence, Walther called a recess for one of his former attorneys to again impress upon him the possible consequences of failing to mount a defense. Jeffs faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted on just one of the charges.

But Jeffs did not change his mind, and the trial continued.

As the day came to a close, Walther again asked Jeffs if he understood the possible "very bad result" of remaining quiet.

"I continue to reject the continued proceedings without proper time to prepare," Jeffs told the judge. "I feel this is an injustice."

For their part, the prosecution voiced no objection to Jeffs being his own attorney. In fact, Nichols said Jeffs' request appeared to be "informed, knowing and voluntary."

But Jeffs' former attorneys later expressed concern. "It's always a scary proposition when the state of Texas, with all their millions of dollars … stands poised to do battle against one person," said Emily Detoto, of Houston. "It's scary."

Said attorney Deric Walpole: "It would be a difficult challenge for anyone."

Jeffs dismissed all five attorneys who were in court to represent him Thursday. He had already fired two others, one back in January and the other less than three weeks before trial.

Jeffs said he had attempted to "train" his attorneys, who were "not comprehending who they're dealing with."

Jeffs had predicted the trial would never happen and that he would be delivered from the jail in Texas, according to some of his followers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

He has in the past instructed sect members to "answer them nothing" in regard to court proceedings, and now he could possibly be following his own advice.

University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who has been following news of the Texas trial, said Thursday that as long as the judge deems Jeffs competent to stand trial, the judge has "no choice" but to allow him to represent himself.

"Someone simply has to be aware of the consequences and, so long as they are, they're entitled to move forward," Cassell told The Tribune. "Even if everyone else in the courtroom thinks it's a dumb idea, you're entitled to run your own defense and let the chips fall where they may."

Salt Lake City defense attorney Greg Skordas said Walther's appointment of standby counsel could ensure "this trial is not going to get set aside by some supreme court or court of appeals in a couple years that says you didn't protect this man's rights." Cassell, however, said he thinks that would be "unlikely."

"The district judge is right on the spot there and in a position to assess whether [Jeffs is] aware of his rights and what he's doing," he said.

Jeffs is facing one count each of sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child. The charges stem from a massive raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, in 2008.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

Blog: The Polygamy Blog

Tribune reporter Aaron Falk contributed to this story.