A federal judge on Thursday denied a motion by former polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs for a separate trial on the charge of failing to appear in court.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart ruled that the same jury will consider that charge, as well as the two counts accusing Jeffs of defrauding the food stamp program, when his trial starts in October.
Jeffs’ lawyers had wanted two trials. They argued that a jury considering the fraud and conspiracy counts would make inferences when they learn Jeffs’ disappeared for almost a year. The defense also worried the jury would be prejudiced when they hear or read writings from Jeffs’ brother, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Warren Jeffs.
The defense said Warren Jeffs’ writings from his prison in Texas may be relevant to the food stamp case but not to the fleeing.
Stewart rejected all those arguments. He said any potential for prejudice does not outweigh the convenience of holding one trial instead of two, especially since much of the evidence and testimony will overlap and jury selection is expected to take days.
Lyle Jeffs was indicted in February 2016 with one count of attempt to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and one count of attempt to launder money. He was released from jail pending trial in June of that year. Within days, he slipped off his ankle monitor and fled.
He arrested in June of this year in Yankton, S.D. Federal prosecutors issued a new indictment, this time adding the failing to appear count. Prosecutors and the FBI have said in court documents that the pooling of SNAP benefits and Lyle Jeffs’ flight were committed after receiving instructions or teachings from Warren Jeffs.
The news was better for Lyle Jeffs on Wednesday. That’s when Stewart ruled that there is no law or rule prohibiting the donation of food after it is purchased through SNAP, though those purchases may be made only by authorized SNAP beneficiaries. Prosecutors had sought to instruct the jury that both are against the law or regulations.
The ruling is similar to one Stewart issued late last year when Lyle Jeffs still had 10 co-defendants. That ruling spurred prosecutors to offer plea bargains. Nine resolved their cases by pleading guilty to a lone felony or misdemeanor count that did not require more jail time, probation or restitution. Charges against another defendant was dismissed.
Prosecutors contend Lyle Jeffs pressured or ordered FLDS members to turn over the food they purchased with SNAP debit cards to the church or to swipe the cards at two church-controlled groceries so the benefits could be converted to cash.
Jury selection for Lyle Jeffs’ trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 19. The trial is to begin Oct. 23.
Warren Jeffs is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in prison for sexually assaulting two girls he married as plural wives.