Image: Line at the Tom Green County Courthouse
Eric Gay  /  AP
A long line forms at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, where  custody hearings began Thursday for hundreds of children taken from a polygamist compound in Eldorado, Texas.
updated 4/17/2008 9:23:14 PM ET 2008-04-18T01:23:14

A court hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children swept up in a raid on a West Texas polygamist sect descended into farce Thursday, with hundreds of lawyers in two packed buildings shouting objections and the judge struggling to maintain order.

The case — clearly one of the biggest, most convoluted child-custody hearings in U.S. history — presented an extraordinary spectacle: big-city lawyers in suits and mothers in 19th-century, pioneer-style dresses, all packed into a courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected by video.

At issue was an attempt by the state of Texas to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes because of evidence they were being physically and sexually abused by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group suspected of forcing underage girls into marriage with older men.

As many feared, the proceedings turned into something of a circus — and a painfully slow one.

By midafternoon only two witnesses had testified, and both only to lay the foundation for documents to be admitted. One witness, a state trooper, was cross-examined by dozens of attorneys, each of them asking the same question on behalf of a child or parent.

As the afternoon dragged on, no decisions had been made on the fate of any of the youngsters.

Additional details on life at the ranch began to emerge as child welfare investigator Angie Voss testified.

She said that if one of the men fell out of favor with the FLDS, his wives and children would be reassigned to other men. The children would then identify the new man as their father. Voss said that contributed to the problem of identifying children's family links and their ages.

Tough time keeping order
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther struggled to keep order as she faced 100 lawyers in her 80-year-old Tom Green County courtroom and several hundred more participating over a grainy video feed from an ornate City Hall auditorium two blocks away.

The hearing disintegrated quickly into a barrage of shouted objections and attempts to file motions, with lawyers for the children objecting to objections made by the parents' attorneys. When the judge sustained an objection to the prolonged questioning the state trooper, the lawyers cheered.

Upon another objection about the proper admission of medical records of the children, the judge threw up her hands.

Image: child custody hearing
Eric Gay  /  AP
In this Thursday sketch by artist Brigitte Woosley, family members of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are seen during a child custody hearing at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas.
"I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, 'Yes, Judge'?" she said.

In both buildings, the hundreds of lawyers stood and responded in unison: "Yes, Judge."

But she added to the chaos as well.

Walther refused to put medical records and other evidence in electronic form, which could be e-mailed among the lawyers, because it contained personal information. A courier had to run from the courthouse to the auditorium delivering one document at a time.

"We're going to handle this the best we can, one client at a time," Walther said.

Legal wrangling
Little evidence had been admitted by midafternoon. The first attempt to admit evidence resulted in an hour-long recess while all the lawyers examined it. The rest of the morning was spent in arguments about whether to admit the medical records of three girls, two 17-year-olds and one 18-year-old.

Department of Public Safety Sgt. Danny Crawford testified to DPS's discovery of a church bishop's records taken from a safe at the ranch that listed about 38 families, some of them polygamous and some that included wives 16 or 17 years old. But under repeated cross-examination, Crawford acknowledged the records contained no evidence of sexual abuse.

The sect came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line. Its prophet and spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is in prison for forcing an underage girl into marriage in Utah.

Voss testified that through their interviews with girls at the ranch, investigators believed there was a pattern of underage girls given in marriage to older men.

Voss said that if the prophet told the girl to marry or to lie the girl would do as instructed.

"If the prophet told her to lie she would because the prophet received all his messages from the Heavenly Father," Voss said.

DNA tests requested
State officials asked the judge for permission to conduct genetic testing on the children and adults because of difficulty sorting out the sect's tangled family relationships and matching youngsters with their parents. The judge did not immediately rule.

Amid the shouting and chaos among the lawyers, who came from around Texas to represent the children and parents free of charge, dozens of mothers sat timidly in their long cotton dresses, long underwear even in the spring heat, and braided upswept hair.

In the satellite courtroom, about 175 people strained to see and hear a large projector set up on the auditorium's stage. But the feed was blurry and barely audible.

"I'm not in a position to advocate for anything," complained Susan Hays, the appointed attorney for a 2-year-old sect member.

Outside, where TV satellite trucks lined the street in front of the courthouse's columned facade, a man who said he was an FLDS father waved a photo of himself surrounded by his five children, ranging from a baby to a child of about 9.

"Look, look, look," the father said. "These children are all smiling, we're happy."

Walther signed an emergency order nearly two weeks ago giving the state custody of the children after a 16-year-old girl called an abuse hot line accusing her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her. The girl has yet to be identified.

Authorities raided their compound April 3 in the nearby town of Eldorado — a 1,700-acre ranch with a white limestone temple and log cabin-style houses — and began collecting documents and disk drives that might provide evidence of underage girls being married to adults.

Children living in coliseum
The children, who are being kept in a domed coliseum in San Angelo, range in age from 6 months to 17 years. Roughly 100 of them are under 4.

FLDS members deny children were abused and say the state is persecuting them for their faith.

The judge must weigh the allegations of abuse and also decide whether it is in the children's best interest to be placed into mainstream society after they have been told all their lives that the outside world is hostile and immoral.

If the judge gives the state permanent custody of the children, the Texas child services agency will face the enormous task of finding suitable homes. It will also have to decipher brother-sister relationships so that it can try to preserve them.

Over the past two weeks, the agency has relied on volunteers to help feed the children, do their laundry and provide crafts and games for them.

Gov. Rick Perry would not say how much the case is costing the state, but said: "Does the state of Texas have the resources? Absolutely we do."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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