Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Law & Order: FLDS

[News] St. George, UT - It seems like everyone in Washington County got called for jury duty last week, including my grandmother. Three hundred summonses were sent out, creating a pool of potential jurors to hear the case against FLDS Church Prophet Warren Jeffs, an unusually high number for a very unusual case. Jeffs faces two counts of rape as an accomplice, for allegedly conducting a spiritual marriage between a 14-year-old girl and an older man.

“Let me just say, I think it is going to be almost impossible for them to find a jury that is completely unbiased. In general, Warren Jeffs is completely despised,” says a Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney, who asked me not to use his name. “That said, selecting a jury is an incredibly complex task, and there is real strategy that goes into how you build the foundation of your case in the minds of the jury from the very beginning.”

The very beginning is a 75-part questionnaire—constructed by both the prosecution and the defense team—that probed the respondent’s education level, general feelings about the criminal justice system and media habits. But, naturally, the bulk of the questions focused on religious attitudes. Three examples:

No. 17: Under the law, a person’s religious beliefs do not excuse compliance with the criminal laws prohibiting non-consensual sexual intercourse. Are you willing to accept and abide by this rule of law? (Yes or No)

No. 20: Are you currently a practicing member of the LDS Church? (Yes or No)

No. 62: The Practice of polygamy is not an issue in this case. But, polygamy or plural marriage is a central belief of the FLDS Community. Are you comfortable setting aside any feelings you may have regarding polygamy and reaching a verdict based solely on the evidence presented in court? (Yes or No)

As of the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 75 potential jurors had been eliminated due their questioner responses. In addition to that, seven others have been excused based on follow up interviews. Those follow-up interviews, which are still being conducted as of this post, are being held in the chambers of Judge James Schumate, with Jeffs’s lawyers, the prosecution, a small group of reporters, and Jeffs himself present (who, in his gray suite and gray-and-white tie, has apparently been quite animated during these sessions).

According to the reporters, most of the follow-up questions stick pretty closely to the questionere, except when Walter Bugden, one of Jeffs’s lawyers, goes into explicit explanations of FLDS practice and doctrine, and then closely gauging the jurors’ reaction.

“A defense attorney hopes that if a juror is going to be overly biased, it will be pretty obvious, and the judge will exclude them,” says that same unnamed Salt Lake defense attorney. “But once you find one that you think will be able to fairly hear that case—that isn’t convinced that Warren Jeffs is the devil incarnate—a good defense attorney will try to get his case out there. The questions he will ask will be built on the presumption of the case he is trying to make. I can’t stress how important this is.”

“Basically,” he continues, “You are getting the jury thinking the right way before the trial ever begins.” (Louis Godfrey)

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