The trial of Warren Jeffs, the infamous Mormon sect leader accused of sexually assaulting two young girls he took as “brides,” began with a bang last week. After firing his lawyers and declaring that he would defend himself, Jeffs delivered a fiery sermon in the courtroom on Friday.
After the jury had left the room, he announced, “There will be a judgment against all those who prosecute the church…I shall let all people know of your unjust ways. I will bring sickness and death.”
The judge, understandably, was perturbed by Jeffs’ threats, and told him that if he called “for the jury’s destruction” while the jury was present, he would be asked to leave the courtroom.
In 2002, Jeffs became the leader of the breakaway Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), which boasts 10,000 members. The sect split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), today’s mainstream Mormons, in the late nineteenth-century when the LDS officially renounced polygamy. FLDS members are strong proponents of polygamy, and Jeffs, as their leader, has sweeping power over marriages within his communities. He regards himself as God’s prophet, which is perhaps why he is so comfortable turning a courtroom into a pulpit.
In many cases, underage girls are married to much older men. In a 2008 raid on Jeffs’ Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas, police witnessed several visibly pregnant underage girls. Eric Nichols, a Texas prosecutor, says that he has audio recordings of Jeffs having sex with a 12-year-old girl, and DNA evidence that Jeffs fathered the child of a 15-year-old FLDS member. Jeffs claims that there was no crime, because he and the girls had a “spiritual marriage bond.”
If convicted, Jeffs could receive a 119-year prison sentence. But some former FLDS members say that it’s highly likely that Jeffs regards himself as a martyr. Elissa Wall, a former FLDS and the author of Stolen Innocence, a memoir in which she accused Jeffs of being an accomplice to her rape by her first husband, Allen, to whom she was forcibly married at the age of 14, says that the courtroom is simply a stage for Jeffs.
“This is kind of his last stand and his last show, and he has an entire people he has to prove a point to,” she explained. In 2007, Wall’s testimony was integral to Jeffs’ conviction as an accomplice to rape, but the convictions were later overturned. Jeffs faces another trial for bigamy in October.
It seems unlikely that, if the prosecutors’ evidence is as convincing as they say, Jeffs will escape punishment this time. What Jeffs is trying to do is make his trial into a debate over religious freedom, rather than sexual assault. If he continues to call for the jury’s death and destruction, however, it seems unlikely that the judge will let him get away with preaching in the courtroom.
Photo from Randy Mankin via Wikimedia Commons.