By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Due to “serious errors” in instructions given to the jury during the trial of Utah polygamist Warren S. Jeffs, the Utah Supreme Court overturned his convictions yesterday and sent the case back for a new trial.
The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that the court unanimously ruled that 5th District Judge James Shumate erred when he rejected a request by Jeff’s defense team to instruct jurors that they had to prove the defendant knew that unwanted sex would take place as a result of a marriage he performed in 2001 between a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and 14 year-old Elissa Wall.
The court also ruled that the state erred when telling the jury to focus on Jeffs’ actions and position as a religious leader rather than on the actions of the groom, the alleged rapist.
“We 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,” Justice Jill Parrish wrote for the court. “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.”
Jeffs, 54, was the leader of the polygamist sect which has about 10,000 members living mostly in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia. He was convicted on two counts of being an accomplice to rape in September 2007.
Walter F. Bugden, Jr., who defended Jeffs, was overjoyed by the decision. “The brilliance of this Supreme Court decision is, in spite of the unpopularity of [Jeffs], even unpopular figures can have their day in court and can have justice,” he told the Tribune.
Bugden met with Jeffs yesterday afternoon at the Utah State Prison to share news and plans to file a motion requesting reasonable bail so his client can be reunited with his family.
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said, “We are very grateful. We’ve seen the Supreme Court deliver us in the past from biased courts and overzealous prosecutions and it’s good to know that protection is there for everyone, including the FLDS.”
Jeffs faces other legal challenges, however. According to the Tribune, Texas officials are working to take custody of Jeffs to face bigamy and sexual assault charges. A Texas Attorney General’s Office spokesman said in an e-mail that efforts are ongoing between the Texas Governor’s Office and Utah authorities to bring Jeffs to the state.
A federal fugitive charge against Jeffs, filed before his arrest in 2006, also remains in place.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the Tribune he was “very disappointed” with the ruling, which could make the case “very difficult to retry.”
But both Shurtleff and Assistant Attorney General Laura Dupaix cite a larger concern than just the prospect of conducting a new trial.
“Our biggest concern is, obviously, how do we protect young girls … from being forced by their leaders to marry older men and have sex with them,” Shurtleff said.
“We’re faced with a very unique situation where you have a religious leader in a closed society, with such authority, such power, particularly over the minds of children, to not go contrary to the prophet-leader’s will,” he said.
Elissa Wall, the victim in the case, said the decision was a shock. “My prayer was that they would stand behind us, that they would be strong and keep the conviction,” said Wall, who wrote a book, Stolen Innocence, about her experience.
“Wrongs have been done and justice has not been served. Warren Jeffs placed me into a phony spiritual marriage when I was 14 years old,” said Wall, who is believed to be only one of many young girls who are routinely married to older men in the cult.
© All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly®/Women of Grace® http://www.womenofgrace.com