- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — The leader of a polygamous Mormon splinter group was convicted yesterday of being an accomplice to rape for performing a wedding between a 19-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl.

Warren Jeffs, 51, could get life in prison after a trial that threw a spotlight on a renegade community along the Arizona-Utah line where as many as 10,000 of Jeffs’ followers practice plural marriage and revere him as a mighty prophet with dominion over their salvation.

Jeffs stood and, like his 15 followers in the courtroom, wore a stoic look as the verdict was read.

“Everyone should now know that no one is above the law — religion is not an excuse for abuse, and every victim has a right to be heard,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who endorsed the prosecution in Washington County.

Defense lawyer Wally Bugden, who told jurors that Jeffs was a victim of religious persecution, declined to comment.

Prosecutors said Jeffs forced the girl into marriage and sex against her will.

The jury deliberated for about 16 hours over three days. Yesterday morning, the judge replaced a juror with an alternate for undisclosed reasons.

While polygamy itself was not on trial — the couple were monogamous — the case focused attention on the practice of polygamy in Utah, where it has generally been tolerated in the half-century since a government raid in 1953 proved a public-relations disaster, with children photographed being torn from their mothers’ arms.

Jeffs succeeded his father in 2002 as president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS).

At the trial, widely different versions of the relationship — and Jeffs’ influence — were presented by the woman, now 21, and her former husband, Allen Steed, 26.

At their wedding in 2001, the woman said she cried in despair when pressed by Jeffs to say “I do” and had to be coaxed to kiss her new husband. The woman testified that FLDS girls receive no information about their bodies or reproduction.

The woman said they were married for at least a month before they had intercourse, when her husband told her it was “time for you to be a wife and do your duty.”

Afterward, she slipped into the bathroom, where she downed two bottles of over-the-counter pain reliever and curled up on the floor, she said.

But Mr. Steed testified that his teenage bride initiated their first sexual encounter, approaching him after he fell asleep in his clothes after a 12-hour day at work.

Under Utah law, a 14-year-old can consent to sex in some circumstances. But sex is not considered consensual if a person under 18 is enticed by someone at least three years older.

Mr. Steed has not been charged with a crime.

Jeffs also is charged in Arizona with being an accomplice to both incest and sexual misconduct with a minor for arranging marriages between two underage girls and relatives of theirs. In addition, Jeffs is under federal indictment in Utah on charges of fleeing to avoid prosecution.

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