U.S. polygamist sect leader pleads not guilty

/ Source: The Associated Press

Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs remained mute during a Wednesday arraignment on bigamy and child sex abuse charges, forcing the West Texas court to enter not guilty pleas on his behalf.

The 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sat and said nothing as prosecutors read a sexual assault charge accusing him of having sex with a girl younger than 17. He was then ordered to stand down as cases accusing him of aggravated sexual assault of a girl younger than 15 and bigamy were read.

District Judge Barbara Walther instructed Jeffs that his silence forced the court to enter not guilty pleas for him.

The charges against Jeffs stem from a 2008 raid of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, a remote community south of San Angelo. Authorities seized 439 children and placed them in state custody on suspicion that the girls were being sexually abused and the boys were being raised to be sexual predators.

Most of the children were eventually returned to their families, but seven men in the sect who see Jeffs as their spiritual leader were charged and eventually convicted of child sexual assault and abuse.

On Wednesday, Jeffs wore glasses, orange jail pants and a gray sweat shirt and sat by himself at the defense table. He has been unable to hire a Texas attorney in the nearly 30 days since he was extradited from Utah, where he was convicted on accomplice rape charges — a ruling that was later overturned.

Jeffs told Walther that he wanted to find his own attorney in Texas, rather than have one appointed by the court. He said he has identified the firm he wants to represent him and that they were still hammering out the details.

"I haven't made a final contact that they (the law firm) agreed to represent me," Jeffs told Walther when pressed on whether he would have representation by his next scheduled court appearance on Jan. 5. "It's beyond my control."

Court appearances
In the meantime, prosecutors have been speaking to Richard Wright, a prominent Las Vegas attorney who represented Jeffs in Utah and Arizona but is not licensed to practice in Texas.

Wright sat in the courtroom gallery Wednesday, after his petition for temporary admission to the Texas bar was turned down.

Jeffs is being held without bond and is scheduled to stand trial for aggravated sexual assault Jan. 24. He says it has been difficult for him to find a Texas attorney with the start of that trial looming.

Prosecutors plan to try Jeffs on each charge separately. His trial for sexual assault is set to begin Feb. 21 and his trial for bigamy is scheduled for March 14.

Jeffs was extradited to Texas Nov. 30 but had been jailed in Utah, where the state Supreme Court overturned his 2007 conviction on accomplice rape charges, citing improper jury instructions.

On Dec. 20, the Utah Supreme Court denied a petition from that state's attorney general seeking a rehearing of an appeal from Jeffs, asking the justices to better clarify how the jury instructions should have been drafted.