Authorities who claim the leader of a polygamous sect committed rape by coercing a 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin are persecuting him because of his religion, a defense attorney said Friday before the case was given to the jury.
Jurors, who were questioned about their opinions on polygamy before being chosen for the trial, listened as lawyer Wally Bugden told them the practice was the crux of a feeble case against his client, Warren Jeffs.
“His church, his religious beliefs is what’s on trial here and it’s being dressed up as a rape,” Bugden said.
Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with rape as an accomplice. The young woman, now 21, has testified that she feared for her salvation if she did not go through with the wedding in 2001.
Jeffs, 51, is not charged with polygamy. The church he leads endorses polygamy and represents itself as an offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church, which disavows any connection and renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of statehood.
No verdict yet
Jurors deliberated for about two hours without reaching a verdict. They are scheduled to reconvene Monday.
Prosecutor Brock Belnap said Jeffs was in a position of “special trust” and held that over the woman.
“Warren Jeffs was a principal and a teacher and religious leader in that community for 20-some-odd years, teaching young girls that they must keep the bars up and treat boys like snakes. But when they get married, to let the bars down,” Belnap told the jury, which began deliberations Friday afternoon.
Bugden, however, noted that the woman waited several years before going to police.
Closing arguments followed five days of testimony in which the woman and her former husband, Allen Steed, gave conflicting accounts of Jeffs’ influence over them, especially in sexual matters.
Woman testifies she felt 'used'
The woman spent nearly three days on the witness stand, sobbing as she recalled how she pleaded to avoid the marriage and begged Steed to end his sexual advances.
The woman testified she had sex weeks into her marriage after Steed said “it was time to be a wife and do your duty.”
“I felt dirty and used,” she said.
The Associated Press does not typically name people who allege sexual abuse.
Steed, now 26, disputed her account and has not been charged. He told jurors he never forced his wife to have sex and that she initiated their first sexual encounter.
He said Jeffs recommended patience and prayer for the couple, not submission and blind obedience.
Steed, too, cried, describing the heartbreak of trying to make the marriage work with a teenager who treated him sweetly in private but rejected his affections at other times.
“I wanted it to go on forever,” Steed said.
His ex-wife ran from the courtroom during part of his testimony.
Accuser has left church, remarried
The 3½-year marriage ended in 2004, after the woman became pregnant with another man’s child. She left the church and is remarried.
In his instructions to the jury, Judge James Shumate said a 14-year-old, under Utah law, can consent to sex in some circumstances.
But that consent is eliminated, he said, when a person under 18 is “enticed” by someone at least three years older. Someone can be found guilty if he or she holds a position of “special trust” over another person under 18.