Warren Jeffs, Polygamist Leader, Convicted In Child Sexual Assault Case (VIDEO)
SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — A Texas jury convicted polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs of child sexual assault Thursday in a case stemming from two young followers he took as brides in what his church calls "spiritual marriages."
The 55-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stood stone-faced as the verdict was read.
Jeffs, who acted as his own attorney, faces up to life in prison. The jury went immediately into sentencing proceedings. They had deliberated on a verdict for more than three hours.
Prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. They also played audio recordings in which Jeffs was heard instructing young women on how to please him sexually.
Jeffs has claimed he was the victim of religious persecution. The FLDS, which has at least 10,000 members nationwide, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. The church believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven and that Jeffs is God's spokesman on earth.
Police had raided the group's remote West Texas ranch in April 2008, finding women dressed in frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century as well as seeing underage girls who were clearly pregnant. The call to an abuse hotline that spurred the raid turned out to be a hoax, and more than 400 children who had been placed in protective custody were eventually returned to their families.
But authorities brought charges against several men from the group, with Jeffs by far the highest-profile defendant.
Jeffs stood mute and expressionless, staring at the floor, for all but a few seconds of the half hour he was allotted for a closing argument on Thursday. At one point he mumbled, "I am peace," and said no more.
The only noise in the courtroom was the creaking of wooden benches brimming with spectators.
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This Dec.1, 2010 file photo provided by the Reagan County (Texas) Sheriff's Department, shows Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints _ a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy is the key to heaven _ were subject of a SWAT team raid where 439 children were seized from mothers and Jeffs, and 11 other sect members, are facing charges including sexual assault and bigamy. (AP Photo/Regan County Sheriff's Departent, File)
This image provided by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department shows a booking photograph of Warren Jeffs after his arrest late Monday. Jeffs, who was on the FBI's Most Wanted List was found with cell phones, laptop computers, wigs and more than $50,000 in cash when he was arrested in Nevada, authorities said Tuesday Aug. 29, 2006.(AP Photo/Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Ross Chatwin, with most of his family, rear, makes a statement at a news conference Friday, Jan. 23, 2004, in Colorado City, Ariz. Ross Chatwin, who was kicked out of the polygamy-practicing Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, broke his silence about the shake-up in the sect's hierarchy, telling reporters that leader Warren Jeffs "has to be stopped before he ruins all of us." (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
A truck hauling lumber makes it way to a compound being constructed by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints led by Warren Jeffs, near Eldorado, Texas, March 1, 2005. The new complex just north of Eldorado, about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio, includes about a dozen concrete and log apartment buildings plus other structures around the estimated 80-foot tall fortress-like temple shown at the top that is nearing completion. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)
This aerial view shows the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints temple under contruction at the religious group's compound near Eldorado, Texas, March 2, 2005. The congregation, known as FLDS, is led by reclusive prophet Warren Jeffs. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)
In this Aug. 31, 2006 file photo, polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs appears in a courtroom in Las Vegas. On Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010 Jeff is scheduled to appear in court in Texas for a final pretrial hearing on an aggravated sexual assault charge. The case stems from the 2008 raid of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas where authorities seized over 400 children. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch, File)
Seth Steed Jeffs of Hildale, Utah, the younger brother of Warren Jeffs, leaves federal court in Denver Friday, July 14, 2006, after being sentenced to three years probation for harboring a fugitive, his brother Warren Jeffs. Warren Jeffs is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
Warren Jeffs watches the alleged victim testify during his trial September 14, 2007 in St. George, Utah. According to reports, the Utah Supreme Court July 27, 2010 has reversed Jeffs' conviction on two counts of first-degree felony rape. The court said that there was error in the jury instructions about lack of consent. (Photo by Douglas C. Pizac-Pool/Getty Images)
In this July 28, 2011 photo, Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs arrives at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas. An internal struggle for control of Jeffs' polygamous church could soon be settled by Utah commerce officials. In April, William E. Jessop filed papers with the state ousting Jeffs as president of the corporations that comprise the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 is the deadline set by the Utah Department of Commerce for the sides to provide a resolution, or a court order settling the dispute. Jeffs has led the church since 2002. He's currently on trial in Texas on sexual assault charges. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs gets into a waiting sheriffs vehicle as he leaves the Tom Green County Courthouse Wednesday Aug. 3, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. Jeffs gave a delayed opening statement about religious persecution Wednesday and dramatically slowed down his trial, where he is defending himself on charges of sexually abusing underage girls. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Brent Jeffs, witness for the prosecution
Prosecution witness Brent Jeffs, right, walks into the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011, for what could be the last day of the trial of polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs. The jury, who convicted Jeffs on two counts of sexual assault of a child, is set to hear closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial.
Convicted polygamist leader Warren Jeffs is escorted into the Tom Green County Courthouse, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. The jury in Jeffs' sexual assault trial is set to hear closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial and could issue up to 119 years in prison.
Prosecutors said the case had nothing to do with his church or his beliefs.
"You have heard the defendant make repeated arguments about religious freedoms," said lead prosecutor Eric Nichols. "Make no mistake, this case is not about any people, this case is not about any religion. It is about one individual, Warren Steed Jeffs, and his actions."
Prosecutors relied heavily on information found during the raid on the compound and after a traffic stop in Nevada in 2006, when Jeffs was arrested. Much of the material was discovered in a vault at the end of a secret passageway in the temple and another vault in an annex building.
"You might have asked yourselves," Nichols said, "a lot of people may ask, why would someone record sex? ... This individual considers himself to be the prophet. Everything he did, hour after hour, he was required to keep a record of that."
On one of the tapes played at the trial, Jeffs made a reference to "drawing close" or "being close," which authorities testified is how church members refer to sex. Two female voices said "OK."
"A good wife is trained for her husband and follows the spirit of peace," Jeffs was heard saying.
Another audio tape included Jeffs and the younger girl from a recording made in August 2006 at the Texas compound, according to testimony from Nick Hanna, a Texas Ranger involved in the 2008 raid.
Played in court, it was difficult to decipher, but Jeffs' and a female voice are heard. He says, "I perform this service in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen," then mentions the alleged victim by name. When she says something, he responds, "don't talk while praying." Several minutes of heavy breathing followed.
The jury wore headphones to better hear the recording and also followed a transcript. One female juror covered her face with her hand as she listened.
Jeffs represented himself after firing seven attorneys in the six months leading to the trial. He broke his courtroom silence with an objection marked by a nearly hourlong speech defending polygamy, and twice threatened the judge and the court with warnings of punishment from God.
He refused to cross-examine the state's witnesses, and delayed giving an opening statement until he began presenting his own defense. In that statement, he evoked images of the civil rights movement and mentioned former Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr. He also asked the jury to remember constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
The lone defense witness Jeffs called, church elder JD Roundy, spent about 10 minutes on the stand Thursday discussing FLDS history after 4½ hours of testimony Wednesday evening.
Jeffs failed three times to remove state District Judge Barbara Walther from the case, the last rejection coming even without a hearing. He claimed Walther was biased because she issued the warrant for the original raid and was frequently updated as it progressed.
Eleven other FLDS men were charged with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy. All seven of those who have been prosecuted were convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.