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Canadian polygamy trial begins with discussion of what happened long ago in Utah

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 03:05 pm

Testimony » Unprecedented court case pits Canada’s ban on plural marriage against religious-freedom guarantees.

Cranbrook, British Columbia • Winston Blackmore, once the Canadian bishop of a Utah-based polygamous church, refused to enter a plea Tuesday as he and a co-defendant became the first so-called fundamentalist Mormons to be tried for polygamy in Canada.

"The accused stands mute, My Lady," Blackmore's attorney, Blair Suffredine, told the judge after his client was asked how he pleaded.

Judge Sheri Ann Donegan entered a not guilty plea on Blackmore's behalf. Co-defendant, James Oler, who succeeded Blackmore as the Canadian bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, pleaded not guilty.

The first-of-its kind trial is being seen as a test of whether Canada's polygamy statute can withstand the country's guarantees for religious freedom. The prosecution began by trying to show the defendants had spiritual motivation to marry multiple women.

The trial's first witness spent most of his time on the stand discussing the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Often referred to as the "LDS Church" or the "mainstream Mormon church," it abandoned polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members found practicing it.

Brian Hales, an anesthesiologist from Utah's Davis County who has written three books on Mormon fundamentalism, described the beliefs, ordinances and organization of the LDS Church. By the time Hales started to describe the function of the Quorum of the Seventy, Donegan asked him to slow down so her note-taking could catch up.

FLDS members still hold polygamy as a key component of their faith, Hales said.

"They believe it's still a law," he said. "They believe it's still important to this day."

Hales will return to the witness stand when the trial resumes Wednesday.

Earlier Tuesday, the prosecutor, Peter Wilson, told Donegan he will submit marriage records from the FLDS that were seized by law enforcement in the United States. He also will submit birth records for both defendants' children.

"The crown believes it is important for you, My Lady, to understand the doctrines and practices of the" FLDS, Wilson said.

The defendants are receiving a bench trial, in which the judge will decide their fates. They face up to five years in prison if convicted.

For 22 years, Blackmore was the Canadian bishop of the FLDS. In 2002, then-FLDS President Rulon Jeffs and his son Warren excommunicated Blackmore. Oler succeeded him.

The indictment issued against Blackmore in 2014 listed him as having 24 wives. As of July, Blackmore had 27 wives and 145 children, according to discussions he and his family led at a Sunstone symposium in Salt Lake City. At least a handful of his wives are from Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the traditional home of the FLDS.

Oler, who is accused of having four wives, is representing himself, though Donegan has appointed an attorney who will make arguments favorable to the defense.

Throughout Tuesday, Donegan asked Oler if he had any objections or arguments.

Every time, Oler answered no or replied, "I have no position."

Blackmore and Oler have had little to do with each other since Blackmore's excommunication. Tuesday, they arrived separately minutes before the trial started, but sat next to each other behind the defense table. They did not speak. Blackmore wore a black suit. Oler wore black jeans and a black jacket.

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