ST. GEORGE, Utah — The leader of a polygamous group was convicted Tuesday of being an accomplice to rape for pressuring a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin into a religious and sexual union more than six years ago.
Warren Jeffs, 51, could get life in prison after a trial that threw a spotlight on a splinter group along the Arizona-Utah line where as many as 10,000 of his followers practice plural marriage and revere him as a prophet.
Prosecutors said Jeffs forced the girl into marriage and sex against her will.
The jury deliberated about 16 hours over three days. The judge removed a juror and promoted an alternate Tuesday for the last three hours of talks.
Jeffs stood and, like his 15 followers in the courtroom, wore a stoic look as the verdict was read.
“Everyone should now know that no one is above the law, religion is not an excuse for abuse and every victim has a right to be heard,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, whose office endorsed the prosecution in Washington County.
Defense attorney Wally Bugden, who told jurors that Jeffs was a victim of religious persecution, declined to comment.
After the verdict, jurors described how the deliberations went fairly quickly with the addition of a new member. The new juror was asked to speak first. She told other members what she was thinking about the case, then talks resumed.
She was credited with bringing a fresh perspective and raising some new points that helped move the group toward a decision.
While polygamy itself was not on trial because the couple were monogamous, the case focused attention on the practice of polygamy in Utah, where it has been tolerated in the half-century since a government raid in 1953. The raid was a public-relations disaster after children were photographed being torn from their mothers’ arms.
Jeffs succeeded his father in 2002 as president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose followers believe he communicates with God and holds dominion over their salvation.
Former church members said he rules with an iron fist, demanding perfect obedience from followers and exercising the right to arrange marriages and to break them up and assign members new spouses.
“This trial has not been about religion or vendetta. It was simply about child abuse and preventing abuse,” the woman, now 21, said, reading a statement after the verdict.
“The easy thing would have been to do nothing, but I have followed my heart and spoken the truth,” she said, declining to take questions from reporters.
The Associated Press does not typically name those who allege sexual abuse.
Over five days of testimony, different versions of the relationship and Jeffs’ influence were presented by the woman and her former husband, Allen Steed, 26.
At their wedding in 2001 at a Nevada motel, the woman said, she cried in despair when pressed by Jeffs to say “I do” and had to be coaxed to kiss her new husband. The woman testified that FLDS girls receive no information about their bodies or reproduction. She said she did not know sex was the means by which women had babies.
The woman said the couple were married for at least a month before they had intercourse, her husband telling her it was “time for you to be a wife and do your duty.”
“My entire body was shaking. I was so scared,” she testified. “He just laid me on the bed and had sex.”
Afterward, she said she slipped into the bathroom, where she downed two bottles of over-the-counter pain reliever and curled up on the floor. “The only thing I wanted to do was die,” she said.
Talking to reporters after the verdict, jurors said a consensus emerged among them: Jeffs directly rejected her pleas and refused to release her from the marriage.
“He was pretty much her only ticket out of the relationship,” Jerry Munk, 36, said.
Steed had testified that his teenage bride initiated their first sexual encounter, approaching him after he fell asleep in his clothes after a 12-hour day at work.
Under cross-examination by the prosecutor, Steed said he believed marrying a 14-year-old was right under “God’s law.” Steed has not been charged with a crime.
Under Utah law, a 14-year-old can consent to sex in some circumstances. But sex is not considered consensual if a person under 18 is enticed by someone at least three years older.
The Mormon Church renounced polygamy more than a century ago. It excommunicates members who engage in the practice and disavows any connection to the FLDS church.
Jeffs is charged in Arizona with being an accomplice to incest and sexual misconduct with a minor. He is accused of arranging marriages between two underage girls and relatives. Jeffs is under federal indictment in Utah on charges of fleeing to avoid prosecution.
“If he gets an extensive prison sentence (in Utah), then that’s something you are always going to look at. … But as of right now, we are still planning to go forward with our cases,” Mohave County, Ariz., prosecutor Matt Smith said.
Jeffs was captured in a traffic stop last year just outside Las Vegas after about 18 months on the run. He was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, alongside such figures as Osama bin Laden.
Jeffs was in a red Cadillac Escalade in which investigators found more than $57,000, cell phones, prepaid credit cards, wigs and sunglasses.
Since at least the 1920s, members of the FLDS have lived in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where the women wear long prairie dresses and have long braided hair, and the men dress in buttoned-up shirts.
All homes and other property were kept in a trust controlled by Jeffs and other church leaders until a judge in 2005 put an accountant in charge because of allegations of mismanagement.