Polygamist Warren Jeffs guilty of sexual assaults on girls
Warren Jeffs, the leader of a polygamist sect whose radical private life put him for a brief time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, is facing the prospect of life imprisonment, after a jury in Texas found him guilty of sexually assaulting two under-age girls.
The self-proclaimed prophet, who has entered into "spiritual marriages" with more than 100 women, was convicted of fathering a child with one "wife" who was 15, and of abusing a different girl, who was 12, on a ranch owned by his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in rural west Texas.
Jeffs, 55, stood silently when the verdict was read out, leaving him facing up to 119 years behind bars. It capped a bizarre trial at which he conducted his own defence, refused to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, and repeatedly told the judge that God intended to punish her with death for the manner in which she was overseeing the case.
Prosecutors used DNA evidence to show that Jeffs was the father of a girl born to a 15-year-old member of his sect, which has roughly 10,000 members. And they played the court in San Angelo several audio recordings in which he instructed young women how to gratify him sexually.
In one of the tapes, which was found by surveillance officers at the Texas ranch, Jeffs made a reference to "drawing close" or "being close", which authorities testified is how church members refer to sex. After two female voices said "OK", he added: "A good wife is trained for her husband and follows the spirit of peace."
Another audio tape, of Jeffs and the 12-year-old girl alone in a room, showed him performing what appeared to be a wedding ceremony. "I perform this service in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen," he said. When the girl attempted to respond, he appeared to carry out a sexual assault. "Don't talk while praying," he said. Several minutes of heavy breathing followed.
In his defence, Jeffs had argued that the US Constitution guarantees religious freedom. He claimed to be acting with the authority of God, and noted that Joseph Smith, the founder of the mainstream Mormon Church from which his sect is descended, had 30 wives, two of whom were aged 14.
Jeffs yesterday made a closing defence statement which consisted of his standing silently for almost 30 minutes. He ended his allotted time by saying just four words: "I am at peace."
The conviction, after three hours of deliberation by the jury, comes three years after police raided the ranch, finding a community of several women. Many under-age girls who lived there were clearly pregnant.
That raid saw 400 children taken into custody, though most were returned to their parents after it was revealed that the call to an abuse hotline which spurred the original raid was a hoax.
Prosecutors brought charges against 11 men for crimes including sexual assault and bigamy. The conviction of Jeffs means that seven of them have now been found guilty, receiving sentences of between six and 75 years. Four still await prosecution.