SAN ANGELO, Texas — The first hint of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs’ defense strategy came Monday when his attorney said his right to freedom of religion was trampled by Texas prosecutors, who allege he sexually assaulted two underage girls after manipulating them into “spiritual marriages.”
Jury selection began Monday in the case of the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church’s 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.
About 280 potential jurors showed up, but about 60 were released because of scheduling conflicts and other routine issues.
Those remaining filled out a form with 17 questions. It did not mention Jeffs’ church but asked potential jurors to list TV shows they regularly watch and whether they or a relative had been the victim of a sexual crime.
The proceedings got started, however, only after District Judge Barbara Walther rejected a request for a three-month delay from Jeffs’ latest attorney, Deric Walpole. He said he had spent 18 to 22 hours a day on the case since being hired last week but it wasn’t enough time to prepare. He said it would be a “great injustice” to start the trial Monday.
“I’ve done everything I can to get ready,” Walpole said. “I’m not asking for a lot given the gravity of this case.”
Jeffs, backed by an FLDS land trust worth more than
$110 million, has had seven attorneys appear on his behalf in recent months. Prosecutors say his frequent switching of counsel is a delay tactic.
In turning down Walpole’s request, Walther said one reason he has had so much work to do in so little time is that Jeffs not only fired his previous attorney but asked Walpole not to consult him — an order that was beyond the court’s control.
While stating his case, Walpole gave the first public hint of Jeffs’ planned defense, saying “my client’s right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy.”
Jeffs is accused of sexual assaulting two girls, one younger than 17 and one younger than 14. The charges against him include aggravated sexual assault of a child, which is punishable by up to 99 years to life in prison.
He faces a separate bigamy trial in October.
The charges stem from an April 2008 police raid on a church compound known as Yearning For Zion outside the town of Eldorado in West Texas .
Seven church members have been convicted and received prison sentences of between six and 75 years.
Jeffs’ church has its traditional headquarters along the Utah-Arizona border. He was convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah in 2007, but that ruling was overturned by the state Supreme Court.