Polygamous sect leader goes on trial

ST. GEORGE, Utah — A young woman who claims a polygamous-sect leader coerced her into marrying a cousin when she was 14 testified Thursday that she was raised to always obey if she wanted to preserve her salvation in heaven.

Now 21, she was the first witness in the trial of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who is charged with rape as an accomplice.

The prosecutor contends Jeffs, 51, knew the girl objected to the 2001 ceremony and subsequent sexual relations but still commanded her to surrender “mind, body and soul” to a 19-year-old man.

“And she did,” Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap told the jury.

In addition to being a high-ranking church counselor in 2001, Jeffs served as the girl’s teacher and principal while she attended an FLDS-run school in Salt Lake City, providing children with principles of the faith.

In 2002, Jeffs became church president, or “prophet,” succeeding his father.

“He was always an authority figure in my life,” the woman said. “The prophet was as God to us. He was God on Earth, and his counselors were pretty much the same, so they had jurisdiction over us.”

She was expected to return to the witness stand today.

Prosecutors played a tape of a marriage lesson recorded by Jeffs in 1997 to emphasize the point that obedience by women was expected.

“Give yourself to him, that means full obedience to righteous principles. No half way, no holding back,” Jeffs said on the tape.

In his opening statement, Belnap told jurors they would see pictures from the young woman’s life.

“She’ll be smiling, but you’ll understand that pictures don’t necessarily say what was going on in her heart,” he said.

The girl first had sex with her cousin months after a ceremony in a Nevada motel, Belnap said.

Taking her turn with the jury, defense attorney Tara Isaacson said the young woman’s cousin will testify that no rape occurred. She said other couples belonging to Jeffs’ FLDS church will talk about how he counsels them about marriage.

During a 1999 sermon, Isaacson said, Jeffs told followers that a “man should only have marital relations with a wife if she invites it.”

The girl may not have liked being married to her cousin, but “being unhappy is different from being raped,” Isaacson said.

The trial began after more than three days of interviews with prospective jurors. Fifth District Judge James Shumate and attorneys quickly settled on seven women and five men Thursday morning after whittling the pool to 28 people.

A fugitive for nearly two years, Jeffs was on the FBI Most Wanted list when he was arrested during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas in August 2006.

If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Followers see Jeffs as a prophet who communicates with God and holds dominion over their salvation. Ex-members say he reigns with an unforgiving iron fist, demanding perfect obedience.

Many had speculated it would be difficult to seat an impartial jury in Washington County because of intense media coverage and because Jeffs’ insular FLDS church is based only about 50 miles east in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Polygamy, a central tenet of the FLDS religion, is not an issue in the case but could emerge during trial testimony.

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