Wednesday, September 26, 2007

FLDS prophet found guilty

By John Dougherty and Kirk Johnson         

ST. GEORGE, Utah, Sept. 25 — The polygamist Warren S. Jeffs, hailed by his followers as a prophet but denounced by critics as a tyrannical cult leader, was convicted here on Tuesday of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old church member.  

Mr. Jeffs, 51, faces up to life in prison.

The verdict, by an eight-member state jury here in Washington County, was a vindication of the prosecution's argument — which some experts had thought might be hard to accept — that orchestrating a marriage of a young girl under duress made Mr. Jeffs culpable even though he was not present when the rape occurred.

The girl at the center of the case, who is now 21, testified that she was pressed by Mr. Jeffs in early 2001 into a "celestial marriage" she did not want, to a cousin she did not like. The girl's cousin has not been charged.

Prosecutors said Mr. Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon sect with an estimated 10,000 members, knew that the marriage would lead to nonconsensual sex.

In the deeply isolated polygamist communities of Hildale, Utah, and adjacent Colorado City, Ariz., about an hour southeast of St. George, residents said the verdict would probably just harden the lines of resistance.

"They believe that polygamy is God's word, and they will still do under-age marriages," said Mr. Bistline, who has written a history of the sect.

Mr. Jeffs, whose sentencing was scheduled for Nov. 20, still faces state charges in Arizona related to performing under-age or incestuous marriages, and a federal indictment for flight to avoid prosecution. He was arrested in August 2006 near Las Vegas after four months on the F.B.I.'s Most Wanted List.

Mr. Jeffs's trial was not about polygamy or religion — at least on the surface. But the decades of bitter relations between the state of Utah, dominated by mainstream Mormons from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mr. Jeffs's renegade sect was never far away.

The mainstream church renounced plural marriage in 1890. In response, some fundamentalist Mormons formed a sect, declaring that the teachings of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, had been forsaken. Mr. Jeffs's lawyer told the jury the trial was really about that old conflict, and about the freedom of religion — a deeply resonant theme here.

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