Utah court reverses polygamist leader convictions
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed the convictions of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and ordered a new trial, saying a jury received incorrect instructions before considering his role in the 2001 nuptials of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
Jeffs, 54, was convicted in 2007 of two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice. He is serving two consecutive terms of five years to life in the Utah State Prison.
A telephone call seeking comment from the Washington County attorney’s office and the Utah attorney was not immediately returned Tuesday. Jeffs’ lawyers scheduled a news conference later Tuesday.
Jeffs is head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The group, based on the Utah-Arizona state line, practices polygamy in marriages arranged by church leaders.
Jeffs performed the religious marriage of Elissa Wall and Allen Steed in a Caliente, Nev., motel and later counseled Wall to be obedient and give her “mind, body and soul” to her husband in an effort to make an unhappy marriage work.
During the trial and later in her book, “Stolen Innocence,” Wall said she objected to the marriage and was forced into sexual relations with her husband.
The Associated Press does not typically name victims of alleged sexual assault, but Wall has frequently spoken publicly about the case.
In its ruling Tuesday, the court agreed with defense attorneys who argued that jurors should not have been told to decide whether Wall’s marital relations were consensual based on Jeffs’ actions and his role as her religious leader. That essentially equates Jeffs with Steed – the person who allegedly has had nonconsensual sex.
Justices said prosecutors were wrong to make that leap.
“Only after there is a determination that an offense has been committed can the law impose liability on another party who ‘solicited, request, commanded, encouraged or intentionally aided’ in the commission of that offense,” the court’s opinion states.
Steed was charged with rape the day after Jeffs’ September 2007 conviction, but the case has languished and it’s unclear how it might now proceed.
Under state law, the parties in the case now have 14 days to ask for a rehearing of the case before the Utah Supreme Court.
The ruling from the high court comes as Washington County authorities investigate allegations that Wall may have lied about her medical records that were used in the trial.
County Attorney Brock Belnap launched an investigation in February after he was told by a third party that Wall’s “medical records had all been created in one day to make it look like she had seen a caretaker on several different occasions.”
The status of that investigation was unclear Tuesday. Wall’s attorney, Roger Hoole, told The Associated Press he had no comment ahead of a news conference he planned for Tuesday afternoon.
An extradition hearing for Jeffs was canceled after the Supreme Court’s ruling was released. Jeffs had been scheduled to appear in Utah’s 3rd District Court on Tuesday so a judge could ask him to sign a warrant seeking his extradition to Texas to face criminal charges there.
Texas authorities used family records gathered during a 2008 raid on a church ranch near Eldorado to charge Jeffs with bigamy, sexual assault of a child and aggravated assault. The charges allege marriages between Jeffs and girls ages 17 and 15 in 2005.
In an e-mail to The Associated Press last week, defense attorney Wally Bugden said Jeffs intends to oppose extradition.
It’s expected that Texas authorities will have to start a new proceeding to continue efforts to extradite Jeffs.