Thursday, September 20, 2007

Warren Jeffs Trial: The Shrill Circus

[News] St. George, UT - The presentation of evidence in the case of State v. Warren Steed Jeffs has ended; the prosecution and the defense have both rested their cases. With the jury to begin deliberating on Jeffs' fate Friday, it interesting that so little of the evidence or testimony they to consider involved Jeffs directly. Befitting of his presence in the courtroom – a lack of sudden movement coupled with a seemingly unblinking stare; the perfect embodiment of the cool monotone heard in his taped sermons – witnesses have talked of Jeffs as if he were a specter in their lives, more than a flesh-and-blood actor.

In the highly emotional testimony, JM (a pseudonym for the victim, used to identify her in civil court documents) spoke of Warren Jeffs as a constant authority figure in her life, first as a teacher, then a counselor, and finally as the prophet. According to her, not only was he the one who arranged and presided over her marriage at age 14, but he was also the embodiment of all the pressures and controls of FLDS society.

In some tense cross-examination, the defense tried to impeach not only JM’s memory of the events she described (some of which conflict with earlier statements she made), but to show her as a feisty strong-willed young woman, who had options and influences concerning her arranged marriage beyond Warren Jeffs’s control.

Essentially, two portraits were painted. The first was of a frightened little girl, forced into a marriage she vocalized opposed, but was given no choice but to ‘keep sweet’ even as she sobbed in a bathroom and downed whole bottles of Tylenol in a bathroom after her wedding ceremony. The second was of a feisty young woman, capable of ‘sugaring up,’ or using sex, to win favor with her new husband, who had no problem challenging the assertions of a seasoned defense attorney, and who has a potentially lucrative law site pending against the United Effort Plan (the financial trust of the FLDS Church).

Ultimately, the jury does not need to decide which portrait is the real JM, but what traits would have even been possible inside FLDS society.

And at that point, FLDS culture went on trial. Through a string of witness, the defense and prosecution would haggle over the final points of FLDS doctrine, marriage covenants (particularly the line ‘be fruitful and multiply), and common phrases such as ‘bodies, boots and britches to your husbands.’

The prosecution’s final witness, JM’s sister Rebecca, acted as the state’s de facto FLDS expert. Rebecca had been a teacher at Alta Academy (a private FLDS high school, where Jeffs was the principal), and a wife of Rulon Jeffs, the defendant’s fathe. In her testimony, she reasserted her sister’s understanding of FLDS teachings - from Home Economics lessons on wifely duties, to the implied instructions in FLDS marriage vows. All of which, according to Rebecca, let a girl know that submission in sexual matters is expected of her. On his cross-examination, Walter Bugden continually insisted, “That is your interpretation.”

The defense, for there part, called about half a dozen FLDS members to present much more liberal interpretations of concepts like ‘obedience’ and ‘submission.’ Most of the women who testified were employed independently, and all of the husbands spoke of their wives as equal partners in marriage. One woman, Jeannie Pipkin, testified that she was released form her marriage after she complained to Jeffs about repeated, unwelcomed sexual touching.

It was strange to watch both the sides quiz witness about a culture concepts that they only know second hand, looking for only the interpretations that will support the understanding they want the jury to have. When the jury deliberates, they will be considering the criminality of FLDS culture as much as they will Jeffs’s actions. Ironically, if they can see Jeffs as his followers do, as a true prophet who embodies and enforces the word of God, they may be more likely to convict then if they just see him as an odd, vaguely creepy-looking man at the other end of the courtroom.


Immediately before it closed its case Tuesday morning, the prosecution played one last audiotape. Not of Warren Jeffs sermonizing, though; the voice heard was that of Sam Barlow, an elder in the FLDS Church. The recording is of a speech Barlow made in a secret priesthood meeting in 2001, and was taped by his son Jethro, who had a recording device hidden in his shoe.

In his speech, Barlow talks of a ‘conspiracy’ by the governments of Utah, Arizona and the United States to put a stop to FLDS practices, such as ‘underage’ marriages. What is disturbing about the tape is not that Barlow has such a keen knowledge of the politics outside his community (he correctly predicts that then-Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano would win the Governorship in 2002), but the utter contempt Barlow shows for core democratic and judicial principles. At no point in the tape does Barlow call for violence, but it is not hard to hear an urging towards some type of radical subversion. Barlow repeatedly says they do not recognize governmental laws, but only ‘the laws of God.’

When the tape ended, someone in the courtroom – never identified by the bailiffs or the media – muttered “Amen.”


When Tara Isaacson and Walter Bugden walked into court Monday morning, they walked briskly past the small gaggle of media. But there was one question, yelled by a TV reporter that Isaacson couldn’t quite stay silent on. “Ms. Isaacson,” he said, “As a well educated woman how can you defend a man that denies education to women?” With just the slightest turn of the head in acknowledgment, Isaacson replied, “You have a nice day.”

It is not just the press on the front steps of the 5th District Courthouse whose tone is approaching shrill. Last week on his Fox News show, Bill O’Reilly questioned the fitness of Judge Shumate to hear this case due to supposed discrepancies in sentencing child sex offenders, and that Shumate once referred to polygamy as an act of ‘civil disobedience.’ Over at the New Republic, Michelle Cottle called the defense’s arguments “obscene,” and that if Jeffs does not spend the rest of his life in prison, “There is no justice in the world.”

Well, then. I guess not all verdicts require careful deliberation. (Louis Godfrey)


  1. Warren Jeffs needs to spend the rest of his days in jail, and when he dies he will certainly burn in hell.

  2. Hopefully this will start to unravel this unholy group. The kids need to know what the real world is all about. Maybe the lost boys can win a lawsuit and wind up with some of the sect's illgotten gains.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.