Judge Says Texas Polygamist Sect Trial Nearing End

Thursday, Nov 5, 2009  |  Updated 10:00 AM CDT
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Judge Says Texas Polygamist Sect Trial Nearing End

Warren Jeffs

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After days of meticulous plodding through photos and records seized from a polygamist sect's West Texas ranch, jurors could begin deliberating the sexual assault case against one its members as early as Thursday.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther told jurors in the trial of 38-year-old Raymond Jessop that attorneys hoped to offer closing arguments by midday Thursday.

Jessop, on trial for sexual assault of a child, is the first polygamist sect member to face criminal trial since authorities raided the Yearning For Zion Ranch last year. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

The prosecution still planned to call witnesses on Thursday morning, meaning defense attorneys were likely to argue without calling witnesses that prosecutors failed to prove that Jessop assaulted the girl in Texas.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Nichols used the testimony of Texas Rangers and a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to introduce church marriage records, family photos and dictation by jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs as evidence in Jessop's trial.

One dictation by Jeffs indicated that he advised Jessop and others in August 2005 not to take the girl to the hospital even though she had been struggling in child labor for days.

"I knew that the girl being 16 years old, if she went to the hospital, they could put Raymond Jessop in jeopardy of prosecution as the government is looking for any reason to come against us there," Jeffs said, according to seized church records.

Many of the documents, including the one recounting the girl's child labor, were heavily redacted for the jury to remove references to plural marriages. Some pages were entirely blacked out except for one or two lines.

Jessop allegedly has nine wives. He faces a bigamy charge, but that case is to be tried later. The alleged victim in the assault case, now 21, was previously in a so-called "spiritual marriage" with Jessop's brother before being "reassigned" to Jessop when she was 15, according to documents seized at the ranch.

Forensic experts testified that DNA tests found a 99.999998 percent probability that Jessop was the father of a girl born to the alleged victim in 2005.

Under Texas law, generally, no one under 17 can consent to sex with an adult.

But defense attorney Mark Stevens has argued that prosecutors will not be able to prove that any crime happened in Texas -- an element prosecutors must prove in the criminal case to show the court has jurisdiction.

Nichols showed jurors this week a photo album documenting the victim and Jessop at the ranch with log cabin-style homes in 2004 and early 2005. But the album did not include photos from November 2004, the time of the alleged sexual assault.

In all, 12 FLDS men have been indicted on charges ranging from failure to report child abuse to sexual assault since the April 2008 raid by Texas authorities. The 439 children taken from the ranch and placed in foster care following the raid have all been returned to their parents or other relatives, but the documents seized in the raid were used to help build criminal cases.

Jeffs, revered by the FLDS as the group's prophet, was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape. He awaits trial in Arizona on charges related to underage marriages there. Then, he'll face separate sexual assault and bigamy charges in Texas.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago and does not recognize the FLDS.

Historically based around the Arizona-Utah state line, the FLDS bought a ranch about 150 miles northwest of San Antonio, in Eldorado, six years ago, and began building massive homes and a towering temple.

The raid of the insular group made national headlines as women in prairie dresses and braids were moved off the ranch, and child welfare officials took custody of their children in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.

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