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Texas court dismisses Warren Jeffs' appeal

Published March 29, 2012 9:22 pm

Polygamous leader's inaction may show he's not interested in pursuing legal channels.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Texas court dismissed Warren Jeffs' appeal Thursday as a jury prepared to sentence one of his former top lieutenants.

Acting as his own attorney, Jeffs filed almost no legal documents in the appeal of his sexual assault of a child conviction. The Third Court of Appeals tossed the case "for want of prosecution" in a two-page memorandum opinion.

"This is good news," said Willie Jessop, a former spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints turned sharp critic of Jeffs. He interpreted Jeffs' lack of action on the case as an effort to avoid re-publicizing his crimes. "I'm not surprised he would shut down the appeals process to do damage control."

Jeffs, 55, was convicted in August of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he took as polygamous wives. He fired his team of high-powered attorneys as the trial opened.

Also this week, a jury convicted the 11th of 12 FLDS men charged following a massive 2008 raid on the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. Wendell Loy Nielsen, 71, who was second to Jeffs in the church, will be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison Friday after being found guilty of bigamy for marrying three middle-aged women.

Freedom from prison for Jeffs and his followers has been a frequent refrain in his "revelations from God," sent out by the thousands to libraries and government officials around the country.

Though Jeffs didn't file legal documents in the case after the initial notice of appeal, he did send the Third Court of Appeals three book-length screeds in December.

Thursday's dismissal closes a major legal door, but he still has a few legal options, said Texas appellate attorney and Baylor University professor Greg White.

"There are avenues, but they're very complicated and generally fruitless," White said.

He could ask the appeals court to reconsider within the next 15 days and explain the reasons for his delay, though the long time period between a missed December deadline for records of his trial and the dismissal could work against him.

Jeffs could also file a state habeas corpus petition, perhaps with religious-freedom arguments. But such petitions are generally only considered when defendants have exhausted all other appeal options, White said.

Regardless, his actions so far (or lack thereof) seem to indicate Jeffs isn't interested in the court system. It looks very likely that Jeffs, also set to be tried later this year on a bigamy charge, will serve out his sentence of life plus 20 years in prison.

"From my point of view, I hope that brings some kind of final resolution to all of the various victims who have been harmed by him over the years," said Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, who prosecuted Jeffs in 2007 in Utah on accomplice to rape charges.

Jeffs was convicted of presiding over an underage marriage between cousins, but his conviction was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court.

"At the very least, it's good news for the young girls who were victims of his case in Texas, and it's also good news for people like [Utah victim] Elissa Wall," Belnap said.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

The Polygamy Blog: bit.ly/Ar3JVq