ST. GEORGE, Utah — Opening statements are expected today in the trial of a polygamous sect leader accused of coercing a 14-year-old girl into sex with her 19-year-old cousin, officials said.
State Fifth District Judge James Shumate, prosecutors and defense attorneys pared down a pool of 300 Washington County residents to 28 people from whom the jury of eight people and four alternates will be chosen.
The trial of Warren Jeffs on two felony counts of rape by accomplice is expected to start in the afternoon with jury instructions and opening statements, said Utah State Courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.
Jeffs, the chief of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is accused of using his influence as a church leader in 2001 to coerce the girl into a religious union and have sex with her cousin over her objections.
She has testified that Jeffs told her she risked her salvation if she refused.
Jeffs, 51, drew attention as a fugitive for nearly two years and after his August 2006 arrest during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas.
Many had speculated to seat an impartial jury in Washington County would be difficult because of media coverage and because Jeffs’ insular FLDS church is based about 50 miles east in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
At least one man from the jury pool was dismissed Wednesday after telling the judge he had read about jury selection in the St. George newspaper, The Spectrum, before reporting to the courthouse. Prospective jurors were told to avoid media reports.
A total of 300 potential jurors received summonses. On Friday, about 230 people from that group answered a 75-question survey. Most members of the jury pool were excused based on their answers.
On Monday, Shumate and the lawyers began individual interviews with potential jurors, a process that became more pointed and time-consuming over three days. Sessions lasted about 15 minutes per person on Monday but were 30 minutes or longer by Wednesday.
The trial is expected to last through Sept. 21.
In questioning with one prospective juror Wednesday, Shumate said polygamists perceive themselves as involved in a civil rights struggle, similar to that of blacks who “refused to sit in the back of the bus” in the 1950s.
Polygamy supporters have contended that the freedom to practice plural marriage as part of their religion is a civil rights matter.
Polygamy is not an issue in the case, but FLDS members believe it brings exaltation in heaven, and it probably will emerge in discussions at trial.
The practice is “held as an intentional act of civil disobedience, just as in the civil rights era when some members of our African-American community refused to sit in the back of the bus,” Shumate said.
But polygamy, he said, “cannot be allowed by jurors to be a focus of concern.”
Jeffs’ attorneys have used a civil rights comparison too in asking potential jurors whether they are bothered that the sect embraces an illegal practice.
In one of the interviews, a potential juror said she does not automatically believe Jeffs is likely to break other laws simply because the FLDS church practices polygamy.
“He may be breaking that law, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to break 10 others,” she said.