Today, the Utah Supreme Court threw out the rape convictions of the infamous Mormon sect leader Warren Jeffs, claiming that the instructions given to the jury during his trial were faulty. Because there is an outstanding warrant for Jeffs’ arrest in Texas, where he is suspected of fathering a child with an underage girl, he will continue to be held in Utah.
Jeffs, the former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, one of the United States’ most prominent practitioners of polygamy, first gained notoriety when he was arrested in August 2006. In addition to many charges of sexual assault in various states, Jeffs was tried in Utah for being the accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl. He was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to two consecutive sentences of five years to life, which he has been serving ever since. The convictions were overturned earlier today, when the state Supreme Court ruled that an earlier judge had erred by failing to “tell the jury that Jeffs could not be found guilty unless he specifically encouraged the girl’s husband to commit rape.”
The victim, Elissa Wall, claimed that Jeffs forced her to marry her first cousin, Allen Steed, when she was fourteen, knowing that nonconsensual sex would most likely take place. The prosecution said that Jeffs told Wall to be an obedient and submissive wife, despite pleas for divorce. Jeffs’ lawyers countered by saying that although Jeffs encouraged the marriage, he never intended for Steed to rape Wall.
Obviously, it’s hard enough to convict someone of rape in this country, not to mention being an accomplice to rape. The Utah attorney general noted that it would be extremely difficult to retry Jeffs on the basis of this theory. And although I am, of course, incapable of denying the importance of equal application of the law, the fact is, it looks like Jeffs may never serve hard time for a series of potentially egregious crimes.
Religious leaders have a special kind of responsibility, and it’s one that our legal system has trouble navigating. Jeffs, as the “prophet” of his community, arranged many of the marriages, and thus bears responsibility for coercing a girl into marriage against her will. It’s true that he didn’t actually rape her – and certainly, Steed shouldn’t be off the hook, although the rape charges filed against him the day after Jeffs’ conviction have languished since 2007. But Jeffs, as the spiritual leader who both encouraged the marriage and then counseled Wall to give herself “mind, body and soul” to her husband, is not innocent.
Such fundamental abuses of power show the need for better governmental interaction with closed religious communities, and, just as importantly, the recognition that rapists and rape culture come in many different forms. Jeffs’ reputation as a polygamist, as well as his other sexual assault charges, doubtless influenced his conviction in Utah. But that does not change the fact that it is absolutely possible to be an accomplice to rape – and that although such a person should not be conflated with the rapist, that doesn’t mean they should escape punishment entirely.
Photo from Flickr.