Attorneys for Lyle Jeffs — the last and best known defendant in what prosecutors say was the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints effort to scam a federal welfare program — told a judge Thursday that he has memory problems, and those problems need to be examined in case he wants to testify in his own defense.
Jeffs’ lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart to delay a trial to the start of 2018. Stewart did not rule on the request Thursday. For the moment, Jeffs, a former bishop in the polygamous sect, is scheduled for trial Sept. 18 on charges of conspiracy, money laundering and failure to appear in court.
That last charge stems from Jeffs’ absconding from a pre-trial release. He was captured in June in South Dakota after almost a year on the run. Defense attorney Kathryn Nester has said in court filings that her team still needs time to prepare for trial.
Thursday’s hearing began with Stewart questioning Nester about what work she did in the case during the past year.
“Why didn‘t you continue investigating?” Stewart asked.
A moment later, the judge added, ”Why did you give up on it?”
Nester told Stewart that she didn’t quit on the case, but gave it a ”low priority.”
“What we kind of hoped was when Mr. Jeffs returned, we would have a six-month window to prepare,” Nester said.
The defense has finished its forensic accounting of what prosecutors call money laundering and fraud, but Nester said she still needs to find an expert to testify about that accounting.
As for Jeffs, Nester told Stewart about a three-story fall onto concrete her client suffered in the mid-1990s and a car accident he had in 1998. Nester told Stewart she has noticed Jeffs has memory problems and wants him to receive a neurological exam and an MRI.
Nester said she does not think a professional will deem Jeffs incompetent to stand trial, but she wants to be able to explain to a jury why her client can’t remember key moments that relate to the crimes alleged by prosecutors.
“Should he decide to testify, if there are things he doesn‘t remember, the government is going to impeach him,” Nester said, ”and we need to be able to address that.”
Nester also told Stewart she plans to file a motion seeking a separate trial for the charge of failing to appear in court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lund told Stewart that he is amenable to delay the trial until Oct. 24, which would allow the trial to finish before Thanksgiving and give defense time to evaluate Jeffs. But Lund said a postponement beyond that would deny the government and the public a right to a speedy trial.
Jeffs is accused of orchestrating a scheme to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as food stamps. Groceries that FLDS members purchased with the benefits were diverted to the church or converted to cash, prosecutors say. But defense attorneys have said the FLDS were merely donating their benefits or groceries.
Jeffs is being held at the Tooele County jail. In previous hearings, anywhere from one to 30 FLDS members appeared in the courtroom gallery.
No FLDS members were in the courtroom gallery Thursday.