Image: Raymond Jessop
Harry Cabluck  /  AP
Raymond Jessop, seen outside the courtroom in Eldorado, Texas, on Thursday, was convicted later in the day of sexual assault of a child.
updated 11/5/2009 9:56:26 PM ET 2009-11-06T02:56:26

The first polygamist sect member to face criminal trial following last year's raid at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in West Texas was convicted Thursday of sexually assaulting an underage girl with whom he had a so-called "spiritual marriage."

Raymond Jessop, 38, didn't visibly react when the verdict was read after just more than two hours of jury deliberations. Free on bond during trial, he was immediately handcuffed and led to jail. Jurors were expected to return to court Monday to begin deciding his sentence on the child sexual assault conviction. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

Lawyers in the case declined to comment on the verdict Thursday.

Jessop allegedly has nine wives. He also faces a bigamy charge, but that case is to be tried later. The girl in the assault case, now 21, was previously in a spiritual marriage with Jessop's brother before being "reassigned" to Jessop when she was 15, according to documents seized at the ranch. She became pregnant at age 16.

During closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Eric Nichols stood before photos of the young mother and toddler in prairie dresses.

"There is a sound foundation based not just in documents — based in DNA evidence for which the documents serve as corroboration ... that Raymond Merril Jessop behind those gates, behind that guard house, behind those walls, sexually assaulted" the then-teen, he said.

Forensic experts who testified during the trial, which began with the largest jury pool in the small county's history on Oct. 26, said there was a nearly 100 percent probability Jessop was the father of the woman's daughter, who is now 4.

Jessop's attorneys had argued that no witness placed Jessop in Schleicher County at the time of the alleged assault in November 2004. They said prosecutors instead relied on only small snippets of documents to place Jessop and the teen at the ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at the time. Many of the documents were seized from enormous cement vaults inside the temple and temple annex at the ranch.

"It's dangerous when we start trying to convict people based on documents and we're not sure where the documents came from," said Stevens, noting there was no evidence Jessop ever had seen the documents prosecutors used to place him at the ranch in 2004 and 2005.

But the defense offered no witnesses at trial and provided no evidence Jessop was elsewhere.

Nichols used a photo album, family records and dictations by jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs to establish a time line that put Jessop and the teen at the ranch when she became pregnant. The records covered parts of 2004 and 2005, but not specifically the time of the alleged assault.

The woman was on the prosecution's witness list, but did not testify.

Generally, under Texas law, no one under 17 can consent to sex with adult.

"Any act of sexual assault is a horrendous crime, but an act of a sexual assault of a child is of such an extreme nature we don't even consider whether the victim was able — much less did — consent," Nichols said.

Documents given to the jury were heavily redacted to minimize any references to plural marriages. The jury was told Jessop was legally married to another woman before entering the spiritual marriage, but only as proof Jessop could not have been legally married to the teen.

In all, 12 FLDS men have been indicted on charges ranging from failure to report child abuse to sexual assault since authorities raided the ranch last year. The 439 children taken from the property and placed in foster care following the raid all have been returned to their parents or other relatives.

Jeffs, revered by the FLDS as the group's prophet, was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape. He awaits trial in Arizona on charges related to underage marriages there. He'll then face separate sexual assault and bigamy charges in Texas.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago and does not recognize the FLDS.

Historically based around the Arizona-Utah state line, the FLDS bought a ranch about 150 miles northwest of San Antonio, in Eldorado, six years ago, and began building massive log homes and a towering temple.

The raid of the insular group made national headlines as women in prairie dresses and braids were moved off the ranch, and child welfare officials took custody of their children in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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