[News] St. George, UT - "Please stop. I don't know what you're doing." These words come from the alleged rape victim, the rape that Warren Jeffs allegedly facilitated, as quoted by Washington County Prosecutor Brock Belnap in his opening statement yesterday. The victim, who by court order is not to be named in any media accounts, claims that she was forced to have sex by her husband in order to consummate their marriage, which was arranged and performed by Jeffs. It bears repeating that she was only 14 years old.
With a jury of seven women and five men seated, the trial of Warren Jeffs began with the traditonal opening statements by both sides. For the prosecution and defense, these statements are a chance to present a narrative, to define what the themes of the trial will be.
So, what is the Warren Jeffs trial really all about?
According to the prosecution, it is about the unquestionable position of authority that Warren Jeffs occupied in the victim’s life, and that through his writings, sermons, and private counseling Jeffs made it clear that the victim was duty-bound to submit to her husband. In both their opening statement and the first portion of the victim’s testimony (more about which will be posted after it concludes today), the prosecution aimed to create a portrait of a frightened girl, who knew what was expected of her, and had no real way to refuse.
The prosecution showed pictures of her being fitted for her wedding dress the night before her celestial marriage was performed, and the marriage bed that was decorated for her and her husband with flowers in the shape of a heart. Later they played audio recordings of Jeffs talking about the duties of wives to their husbands. The FLDS members in attendance – several men in dark wool suites and two women in pioneer-era dresses – barley flinched as this evidence of their secretive world was aired.
The defense on the other hand wants the jury to question if a rape ever took place, let alone if Warren Jeffs was an accomplice to it. Tara Isaacson, combining Power Point and a hint of theatricality, opened the defenses case by arguing that the testimony of the victim and the teachings of Jeffs, if fairly evaluated, show no real evidence of a crime. Further more, Isaacson said the defense will attempt to show, through dozens of witnesses, that within the norms of FLDS culture, arranged marriages at a young age are common, and do not constitute rape.
This hints at, but falls short of, comments made about the case by Isaacson’s co-council Walter Bugden prior to the trail. “It is nothing short of the state of Utah condemning a culturally different religion. It is a continuation of 165 years of intolerance,” Bugden said, as quoted in The Spectrum. He went on to talk about arranged marriages of young people are common around the world, and that Jeffs acted in a way that many religious leaders do.
Curious about this quote, I e-mailed Bugden a few days ago asking, “Where is the limit? Not just in this case, but more broadly, where is the limit on freedom of religious practice? To what point can a modern, pluralistic society tolerate religious practices that, arguably, deprive the individual of their own free exercise?”
I never got a reply from Mr. Bugden, which was to be expected. Mr. Bugden has refused several interview requests pertaining to the Jeffs case, and is known for being media shy.
But, maybe, he didn’t reply because there is no good answer. And Maybe that’s what this trial is really about.
A little over an hour before the trial opened, Judge Shuate heard the final pre-trial motion on the limiting of evidence, one with an interesting Constitutional question imbedded in it.
The defense had asked the court to exclude an audio recording of Jeffs sermonizing that had come into the possession of the prosecution. It is not clear where the tape (which has not been made available to the public) came from, although it was supposedly recorded in August of 2006, possibly after Jeffs’s arrest. In the excerpted portions from court documents, Jeffs talks about a 2003 revelation, in which he say a government conspiracy to criminalize and prosecute his work and the work of his father (Rulon Jeffs) concerning Celestial Marriage.
The Defense argued that not only was this tape irrelevant and highly prejudicial, it was also protected speech, as it was in the form of a religious communiqué of sorts. This definitely piqued the interest of both Shumate and the prosecution.
The prosecution said they were not sure if they were actually going to enter the tape into evidence, but maintained that it did have relevance, and wanted to maintain the right to use it.
Shumate said that, for the moment, he thought the tape’s prejudicial impact would outweigh its relevance, but he would be willing to revisit it if appropriate during the trial. Thus the tape is temporarily quashed. When the prosecution asked if the judge had ruled on the Constitutional question, Shumate said it was possible for him to avoid it, so he was going to do just that. (Loius Godfrey)