- Associated Press - Monday, July 25, 2011

SAN ANGELO, Texas — The first hint of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs‘ defense came Monday when his attorney said his right to freedom of religion was trampled by Texas prosecutors, who claim he sexually assaulted two underage girls after manipulating them into “spiritual marriages.”

Jury selection began Monday in the case of the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that teaches that polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church’s 10,000 members believe Mr. Jeffs is a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.

About 280 potential jurors completed written questionnaires. The questions weren’t made public, but the prosecution and defense will have the chance to quiz the potential jurors about their responses when they return Tuesday.

“There’s no right answer,” District Judge Barbara Walther told them. “The only wrong thing you can do is not tell the truth.”

Things only got started, however, after Judge Walther rejected a request for a three-month delay from Mr. Jeffs‘ latest attorney, Deric Walpole. He said he had spent 18 to 22 hours a day on the case since being hired last week but it wasn’t enough time to prepare. He said it would be a “great injustice” to start the trial Monday.

“I’ve done everything I can to get ready,” Mr. Walpole said. “I’m not asking for a lot given the gravity of this case.”

Mr. Jeffs, backed by an FLDS land trust worth more than $110 million, has had seven attorneys appear on his behalf in recent months. Prosecutors say his frequent switching of attorneys is a delay tactic.

While stating his case, Mr. Walpole gave the first public hint of Mr. Jeffs‘ defense, saying “my client’s right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy.”

Tall and lanky with thick glasses, Mr. Jeffs has made numerous appearances in Judge Walther’s court wearing a prison jumper. He wore a black suit Monday and spent part of the hearing for a delay with his head bowed and his eyes mostly closed, as if he were praying. He was more attentive during the subsequent jury-selection process, frequently whispering things to his attorneys. Church faithful rise when he enters the room.

Mr. Jeffs is accused of sexual assaulting two girls, one younger than 17 and one younger than 14. The charges against him include aggravated sexual assault of a child, which is punishable by up to 99 years to life in prison.

He faces a separate trial for bigamy in October.



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