- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Warren Jeffs, the leader of a breakaway Mormon sect that practices polygamy, had his convictions for participating in child rape reversed by the Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday, but he will remain in prison until he is handed over to Texas authorities to face similar charges in that state.

“We conclude that there were serious errors in the instructions given to the jury that deprived Jeffs of the fair trial to which all are entitled under our laws,” Justice Jill Parrish wrote in a unanimous 4-0 decision.

In 2007, Mr. Jeffs was found guilty on two counts of being an accomplice to first-degree felony rape related to his religious role in the marriage of Elissa Wall, 14, to her first cousin Allen Steed, 19, which Miss Wall has maintained was not consensual.

The court declared a mistrial on the grounds that jurors were wrongly told they could decide in judging Mr. Jeffs whether the marital relations between Miss Wall and Mr. Steed were consensual. Mr. Steed was not charged with rape, pending Mr. Jeffs‘ conviction, and still has not been tried.

“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 justices wrote.

Known as “the prophet,” the 54-year-old was serving two consecutive terms of five years to life before the court reversed his convictions. He is head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which has about 10,000 members, many of who live in isolated communities along the Utah-Arizona state line.

Mr. Jeffs‘ attorney, Wally Bugden, claimed the case was mere religious persecution and said he was “thrilled” by the court’s ruling.

“We said from the very beginning that they chose the wrong crime to prosecute an unpopular religious figure,” he told Reuters news agency. “They attempted to impute criminal liability to an unpopular person.”

The FLDS is a breakaway group from the mainstream Mormon church, which initially also practiced polygamy but banned it more than a century ago.

The Utah Attorney General’s office has not decided whether to retry Mr. Jeffs but will hold him until it can turn him over to Texas, according to department spokesman Paul Murphy. The federal government also has a warrant out against Mr. Jeffs for unlawful flight, he said.

Texas plans to try Mr. Jeffs, based on family records gathered during a 2008 raid on a ranch near Eldorado, on charges of bigamy, sexual assault of a child and aggravated assault. The Associated Press received an e-mail last week in which Mr. Bugden said his client will resist extradition.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said, “it would be tough to retry him here because we don’t have much to hold him on as an accomplice to rape,” but said Texas may have the goods on Mr. Jeffs.

“That’s where we think he will get a good, long sentence,” he said.

The court’s decision provoked outrage from advocates for FLDS runaways. Jennilyn Merten, co-director and co-producer of the upcoming movie “Sons of Perdition,” said she is frustrated because Mr. Jeffs‘ victims face scare tactics, which are shown in her film about several teens who have fled the sect and have been exiled from their families.

She said the filmmakers don’t want to see Mr. Jeffs “go free and justice not to be meted out.”

“We feel that further investigation is needed,” said Ms. Merten, an ex-Mormon whose film played at the SilverDocs festival in the Washington area earlier this summer. “If he is set free, that in and of itself is a crime.”

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