San Angelo, Texas • Despite a request for a delay to prevent what the defense called a "great injustice," jury selection in the West Texas trial of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs got under way Monday.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who spent the day in the courtroom, said it was time for the already-delayed proceedings to begin.
"I wish it was going to trial before this," he said, saying the charges showed that "sexual assault of 12- and 14-year-old girls will not be tolerated in Texas."
Jeffs, 55, is accused of spiritually marrying and sexually assaulting two underage girls, one younger than 17 and the other younger than 14. He faces charges of sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child.
The charges stem from a massive raid on the group's remote Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, three years ago. More than 400 children were taken into protective custody, though they were later returned to their parents.
Abbott declined to comment on whether Jeffs fathered children with the two victims. DNA tests of FLDS children have been presented as evidence of underage pregnancies in trials of other FLDS men charged after the raid.
Abbott also declined to comment on whether either girl would testify. Though both victims have been subpoenaed, along with 76 other women from the ranch, no active member of the sect has testified in previous FLDS trials.
Jeffs appeared highly involved in his own defense Monday. Attorney Deric Walpole of McKinney, Texas, said he had insisted on having input in the case to ensure court documents aligned with his religious principles.
Walpole, who was hired just last week, again asked for a continuance on Monday.
"I have done everything I can, including going without sleep for days," to prepare for trial, he said. Invoking religious freedom, Walpole argued that it would be unfair to Jeffs and the approximately 10,000 members of his sect to go on with trial before Walpole was prepared.
But Texas District Judge Barbara Walther sided with the prosecution and denied the motion. Walpole also said he plans to file a change-of-venue motion.
He was brought on after Jeffs fired his lead attorney less than three weeks ago a move the prosecution called a delay tactic.
Even though Walther ruled that fired lawyer Jeff Kearney of Fort Worth had to stay on the case, he was not seen in the courtroom Monday. Rather, Walpole and Houston-based Emily Detoto questioned potential jurors. The pool was winnowed to about 225 Monday, largely by eliminating people who have a legal excuse, like caring for a sick person or being an active college student.
Dressed in a dark suit and navy tie, Jeffs was seated facing the crowd. He alternatively gazed out at them through his glasses, took notes or spoke with his attorneys. Though his shoulders were slightly bowed, Jeffs appeared healthy and his hair was neatly combed. He occasionally looked up at three of his male followers who had come to court Monday.
At the end of the day, Jeffs was escorted to a waiting police car. He did not speak to the gathered media.
Jury selection will continue Tuesday, with attorneys asking potential jurors more detailed questions about things like their previous knowledge of the raid, whether they have an opinion on the FLDS and any sexual assault that might be in their history. Jury selection could wrap up Wednesday.
A suppression of evidence hearing is expected to begin after the pool is narrowed but before jurors are seated.
The defense is expected to argue that the evidence should be suppressed because the 2008 raid was based on a hoax call for help from a woman pretending to be an underage plural wife. If they succeed, it would likely decimate the prosecution's case.
But Walther has already denied a request to suppress evidence during a hearing in 2009.
"If we have similar arguments, the prosecution hasn't got anything to worry about," Abbott said.
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