A former follower of a polygamous-sect leader sobbed on the witness stand Friday as she described the terror and despair she felt on the eve of her wedding at age 14.
“I kept thinking I felt like I was getting ready for death,” she testified on the second day of the trial of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jeffs is charged with two felony counts of rape as an accomplice. Prosecutors contend he used his religious authority to coerce the ceremonial marriage and pressure the teen bride to have sex with her 19-year-old cousin against her objections.
In her testimony Friday, the woman, now 21, said she was shocked when she learned she had been selected for the marriage by Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ father, the church prophet at the time who is now dead. The woman said she pleaded with Rulon Jeffs to delay the marriage until she turned 16 or to be given to another man.
Her efforts to avoid the union failed, said the woman, who is not being identified by The Associated Press because she is alleging sexual assault. She testified that Warren Jeffs told her: “Your heart is in the wrong place; this is what the prophet wants you to do.”
“I felt betrayed by the people I trusted most ... my father, and Warren because he completely overlooked the fact that this was something I didn’t want to do and was unwilling to do,” the woman testified.
Bride describes 'immense pressure'
The marriage took place on April 23, 2001, in a motel in Caliente, Nev., owned by FLDS members. Describing her emotions during the wedding ceremony, the woman said: “Trapped. Extremely overwhelmed. Immense pressure.”
She said she hung her head and cried in despair when pressed by Jeffs to say “I do” and had to be coaxed to kiss her new husband.
Jeffs then commanded the new couple to “go forth and multiply and replenish the Earth with good priesthood children,” she testified.
In the FLDS community, marriage and motherhood are considered the highest achievements for women, who pray to be prepared to marry and follow a worthy man from a young age. But girls receive no information about their bodies, sexual relations or procreation, the woman testified.
Horrified that she would have to make a life with her cousin, the woman said she refused his sexual advances, which began on the wedding night and gradually escalated until he exposed himself to her in a public park one night and later undressed her to look at her naked body.
Followers see Jeffs as a prophet
Jeffs, 51, has led the FLDS church since 2002. Followers see him as a prophet who communicates with God and holds dominion over their salvation; ex-church members say he reigns with an iron fist, demanding perfect obedience from followers.
Jeffs was a fugitive for nearly two years and was on the FBI’s 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.
Jeffs is not charged with being a polygamist, and the three-year marriage between the cousins was monogamous. Still, polygamy casts a shadow over the case.
Polygamy advocates have long contended that the freedom to practice plural marriage as part of their religion is a civil rights matter. Members of FLDS, which broke away from the Mormon church, believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
The Mormon church disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members found to be practicing plural marriage.