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Utah drops accomplice-to-rape charges against Warren Jeffs (video)

Published November 9, 2011 5:42 pm

Polygamy • State Supreme Court hadoverturned verdict of accomplice to rape.
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St. George • Four years ago, the accomplice-to-rape case against Warren Jeffs in Southern Utah made noise around the globe as the first to put the notorious polygamous sect leader on trial.

It ended with a whisper Wednesday as charges were dismissed in a hearing less than five minutes long. Fifth District Judge James Shumate's signature brought to a close a high-stakes case that originally won prosecutors a guilty verdict, but faltered as the Utah Supreme Court overturned Jeffs' conviction and questions arose about forged evidence. With the suspect now sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a Texas prison, prosecutors said Wednesday they were letting go.

"I think it was the right thing to do in terms of the cost and expense of going forward and Jeffs already being in Texas for the foreseeable future, but it wasn't really a satisfying conclusion after spending six years on it," said Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap. "My heart was in it, and I believe in the case ... so I have real mixed feelings about it."

The charges that his office brought in 2006 helped put Jeffs' picture on national TV as one of the country's 10 most wanted. After his arrest on a Nevada highway, the leader seemed to disintegrate in jail, attempting suicide and calling himself a "wicked man" before trying to abdicate his role as prophet.

Prosecutors nevertheless had a difficult legal challenge. Jeffs was accused of presiding over a marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. Elissa Wall, by then a 21-year-old mother of two who had left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, testified that her cousin had raped her while they were married.

But the first-degree felony charge prosecutors filed is more typically used for people who are more directly involved with the crime — for example, in a gang rape situation, said University of Utah law professor Daniel Medwed.

"It was a novel and justifiable charge, it was just very difficult to prove," Medwed told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this year. "Under the law, the defense had a pretty good argument."

Still, Jeffs was found guilty in September 2007 and sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life in prison. Defense attorneys appealed, and in July 2010 they were successful: The Utah Supreme Court overturned Jeffs' conviction, ruling the jury should have been told to focus on whether Jeffs intended for a rape to occur when he conducted the ceremony.

"The state's theory of prosecution against Mr. Jeffs was flawed from the inception," defense attorney Wally Bugden said Wednesday.

But in the meantime, more serious charges had arisen against Jeffs. In April 2008, authorities in Texas executed a massive raid on the FLDS's remote ranch in Eldorado, Texas — an outpost Jeffs had started in 2004 and planned to eventually make the sect's headquarters following a crackdown in Utah.

Authorities took DNA tests of more than 400 children and seized trailer loads of evidence, including over a billion of pages of photos, records and documents.

After Jeffs' Utah conviction was overturned, he was extradited to Texas over Bugden's objections.

When he went to trial in July, acting as his own attorney, Jeffs was convicted on two counts of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he took as plural wives. A jury sentenced him to life in prison plus 20 years after hearing evidence of additional so-called bad acts, including 78 polygamous marriages, two dozen of them to underage girls. Jeffs will be 100 before he's eligible for parole, and he's scheduled for another trial in Texas on bigamy charges next year.

Utah prosecutors cited that long prison term in Wednesday's dismissal. But in the years since Jeffs' conviction, questions also have arisen about their case. The Utah Attorney General's Office began looking into allegations that medical records used as evidence were forged, questions that could undermine Wall's credibility. Though results of that investigation haven't been announced, the allegations contributed to Arizona charges in the case being dismissed, Jeffs' defense attorney has said.

In February, Wall's former husband, Allen Steed, agreed to a plea deal that ended a felony rape case filed after Jeffs was found guilty. Steed, 29, was sentenced to 30 days in jail plus three years probation.

The Tribune does not typically identify victims of sexual assault, but Wall revealed her identity during the 2007 trial, speaking out publicly and writing a book about her experiences.

Still, Utah prosecutors kept the case against Jeffs active, waiting until the Texas trial was complete to make a decision about retrying him.

Bugden said that Wednesday's dismissal is proof that "the system works."

"There could not possibly be any benefit to the people of the state of Utah to expend hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-prosecute Mr. Jeffs," he said. "The point is that no matter how disliked a particular defendant is, we want our courts to protect us if some prosecutors have crossed the line."

Jeffs, still acting as his own attorney, is appealing his conviction in Texas. If his appeal or another challenging the search warrant that allowed the raid are successful, Belnap said charges could be brought again.

"If there ever were the chance that he could come back, we could visit with the victim and decide if we wanted to move forward again," he said.

Wall's attorneys released a statement Wednesday saying she supported the decision to dismiss the charges.

"Given the fact that Mr. Jeffs will spend the rest of his life in a Texas prison as a result of this conviction, it would serve little purpose to seek an additional conviction for lesser crimes here in Utah," attorney Greg Hoole said in the statement.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst