Relaymedia

Sect Leader Stands Trial for Charges Tied to Teen Marriage

A polygamist church leader accused of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry an older cousin in 2001 was ordered Thursday to stand trial on charges of rape by accomplice.
( [email protected] ) Dec 28, 2006 12:54 PM EST

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) - A polygamist church leader accused of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry an older cousin in 2001 was ordered Thursday to stand trial on charges of rape by accomplice.

Prosecutors said the girl had no choice but to obey Warren Jeffs, whose influence over his followers has been described as extraordinary, dictating everything from where they live to whom they should marry.

She "expressed her disdain, reluctance, opposition and total dislike of sexual relations," 5th District Judge James Shumate said of the alleged victim.

Jeffs, 51, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, could face life in prison if convicted. He immediately pleaded not guilty to the two felony charges.

"The state has overcharged Mr. Jeffs. And shame on the state," said defense lawyer Wally Bugden, who argued that Jeffs had acted no differently than a priest, rabbi or marriage counselor.

Bugden said Jeffs is being prosecuted for his faith, which holds that polygamy will bring men and their wives glory in heaven.

"People are entitled to whatever religious beliefs they want," Washington County prosecutor Brock Belnap said. "But religion is no excuse for child abuse."

The woman, now 20, was not in the courtroom to hear Shumate's decision. She testified last month that she felt "completely trapped and defeated" during a ceremony at a Nevada motel - the "darkest time of my entire life."

The woman left the sect after 3 1/2 years, remarried and had a baby last week. The Associated Press does not identify of victims of alleged sexual assault.

Outside court, her attorney, Roger Hoole, said she was pleased and relieved with the ruling. A trial was set for April 23.

In closing arguments, Bugden told the judge he would be making a "factual leap" to find probable cause for a trial.

"Saying I don't want to get married is not the same as saying I don't want to have intercourse," Bugden said.

Prosecutors said Jeffs, who performed the ceremony, was responsible for any trauma because he counseled her to submit to her husband "mind, body and soul."

The girl and her cousin were united in an FLDS religious ceremony but never held a valid marriage license. The cousin has not been charged.

Jeffs' FLDS sect traces its roots to early Mormon theology, which promoted plural marriage. The modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.

FLDS members consider themselves "fundamentalist Mormons," although the mainstream church disavows any connection. They also consider Jeffs a prophet of God with dominion over their salvation.

The church has 10,000 members mostly living in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, on the Utah-Arizona border.

Jeffs was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List when he was arrested Aug. 28 in a traffic stop on Interstate 15 just north of Las Vegas, Nev. He is being held without bail in the county's Purgatory Correctional Facility.