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Federal prosecutors have offered plea agreements to most of the 11 polygamous sect members accused of defrauding the food stamp program, lawyers said Thursday, and have given some of the defendants a chance to plead guilty to only a misdemeanor and avoid prison.
At least two of the defendants, Kimball Dee Barlow and Ruth Barlow, plan to plead guilty, their respective attorneys said Thursday.
"It's anticipated he will accept a plea offer, yes," said Barlow's attorney, Rudy J. Bautista.
Bautista, like other defense attorneys involved in the case if they spoke at all Thursday declined to discuss specifics of the plea agreement for fear that the deal could fall apart before it is entered in court.
The U.S. attorneys office, through spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch, declined to to comment Thursday.
Aric Cramer, who represents defendant Kristal M. Dutson, said she is pondering whether to accept a plea agreement.
Cramer declined to say what Dutson was offered, but he said federal prosecutors have given at least some defendants the chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.
Those defendants would not have to go to jail or prison, Cramer said, nor would they have to pay any restitution or testify against co-defendants.
"It's an amazing offer," Cramer said. "I have never seen in 27 years of practice a federal prosecutor offer a misdemeanor after filing felonies."
Cramer said he had heard from other attorneys that the misdemeanor offers were made to defendants whom the government did not consider leaders in the FLDS. The leaders, including Seth Jeffs, who led the FLDS congregation in South Dakota, and former FLDS bishop John Wayman, received offers allowing them to plead to more serious offenses, which were still less harsh than the two counts of conspiracy with which all defendants were indicted in February, Cramer and other attorneys said Thursday.
Prosecutors "kind of have this thing: 'It doesn't really matter what you've done. If your name is Jeffs, you're just evil and we're going to treat you as such,' " Cramer said.
Defense attorney Ryan Stout, who represents Ruth Barlow, confirmed that she will plead guilty. He declined to specify whether she will plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge or the stiffer offense reserved for the leaders.
"Well, she's not considered one of the head honchos, I'll give you that," Stout said.
Cramer said prosecutors gave defendants a Friday deadline to accept the deals. All 11 defendants are scheduled for trial on Jan. 30.
They were indicted in February, each with one count of conspiracy to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and one count of conspiracy to launder money. Prosecutors say FLDS leaders required sect members to turn over to the church their SNAP cards or the food purchased with them, and in some cases SNAP benefits were used at church-controlled stores and converted to cash.
Offers to plead guilty to lesser or fewer charges are a common tactic in the criminal justice system. Cramer said the offers here are not necessarily a sign that the government has weak cases, but perhaps that prosecutors pursued indictments too soon.
Prosecutors and the FBI accumulated terabytes of evidence and have missed multiple deadlines to sort that evidence and provide it to the defense.
"It's a very sloppy investigation," Cramer said. "It's a very sloppy case."
Former FLDS members have watched the case in hopes it would dismantle the sect, whose president, Warren Jeffs, is already serving a prison sentence in Texas for sexually abusing two underage girls he married. He is a brother to Lyle and Seth Jeffs.
A half-brother, Wallace Jeffs, on Thursday said he was OK with the lesser defendants pleading guilty to the misdemeanors, but said the FLDS leadership needs to go to prison.
Anything less is "another slap on the wrist to these guys," Wallace Jeffs said, "and they'll just keep doing what they've always done."