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Utah Supreme Court Awards Victory To Polygamist Leader Warren Jeffs

Warren Jeffs looks over at the jury during his trial in St. George, Utah, in 2007.
Warren Jeffs looks over at the jury during his trial in St. George, Utah, in 2007.

In the Utah Supreme Court today, polygamist leader Warren Jeffs won an important legal victory, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

In a unanimous decision, the court said trial judge James L. Shumate misstated the Utah sexual consent law in his instructions to the jury, which then convicted Jeffs, sending him to prison for two consecutive terms of five years to life.

"Because we hold that the trial court's instructions to the jury regarding lack of consent were in error, we reverse Jeffs' two convictions of rape as an accomplice and remand for a new trial," Justice Jill N. Parrish wrote for the court.

Jeffs was charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice, for facilitating the rape of one of his followers, Elissa Wall, a 14-year-old girl, who was paired with her 19-year-old first cousin, Allen Steed, in an arranged, so-called "spiritual" marriage.

Wall was raised as a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She attended Alda Academy, where Jeffs was principal and her teacher.

The girl testified she was forced into the marriage and the sex that followed, despite vigorous protests to Jeffs, her religious leader.

In its opinion, the justices said they "regret the effect our opinion today may have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain."

However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case, in order to protect the constitutional principles on which our legal system is based. We must guarantee justice, not just for this defendant, but for all who may be accused of a crime and subjected to the State's power to deprive them of life, liberty, or property hereafter.

Prosecutors say a decision on a new trial will follow review of the decision, evaluation of the case, and consultation with the alleged victim.

"It'll take some time to digest this decision," said Brian Filter, deputy county attorney in Washington County, Utah, where the case was tried.

Wall's attorney, Roger Hoole, says his client "is certainly willing to go through another trial."

"She's a very brave girl," he told NPR's Howard Berkes.

In an interview with Howard defense attorney Walter Bugden said "we are thrilled the Supreme Court has applied the law."

The decision, Bugden asserted, supports his contention that Jeffs is the victim of a "religious prosecution [and] religious persecution."

"The state tried to impute [criminal] liability to an unpopular political figure," he said.

Jeffs has been the most-visible target of a three-state crackdown on polygamy, which has focused on his group's practice of arranging "spiritual" marriages between underage girls and older men. FLDS leaders said they abandoned that practice after a raid on the group's YFZ ranch in Texas, in 2008.

Last month, similar charges were dropped against Jeffs in Arizona. Two key witnesses said they would not testify.

Charges of bigamy and sexual assault of a child are still pending in Texas. A hearing was scheduled in Utah Tuesday, on Jeffs' extradition to Texas, but the Utah Supreme Court ruling formally changes Jeffs' legal status. Texas authorities must now begin a new extradition process.

Hoole, the attorney for the alleged victim in Utah, notes that the Texas charges are direct. Jeffs is not charged in Texas "as an accomplice to rape, but as the alleged perpetrator."

Jeffs has been jailed since his arrest on the Utah charges four years ago. Bugden said he will seek his client's release from jail on bail once the case is officially transferred back to Washington County.

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David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.