San Angelo, Texas •After two days of intense and at times contentious jury selection, 10 women and two men were chosen Tuesday evening to decide the fate of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs.
The unexpectedly quick selection of the panel puts Jeffs' West Texas trial a day ahead of schedule.
"We have seen this judge in the past run very swiftly and very efficiently," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who was in court for both days of jury selection. "We're very pleased with the speed of the trial so far."
Said defense attorney Emily Detoto: "Let's just say I'm surprised at how fast it's going."
Two alternates, a man and a woman, also were selected in a session that ran until shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Jeffs, 55, is facing charges of sexual assault of a child in two alleged plural marriages, one to a girl younger than 17 and the other to a 12-year-old. A conviction could put him in prison for life.
The charges against Jeffs stem from a massive raid at a remote Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ranch in Eldorado, Texas, three years ago. In a hearing set for 1 p.m. Wednesday, the defense is expected to argue the raid was illegal because it was based on a hoax call for help from a woman pretending to be an abused underage plural wife, and therefore the evidence it yielded should be suppressed.
"I told you to have your motion to suppress ready for Wednesday," Texas District Judge Barbara Walther said with a tight smile. If the defense is successful, it could decimate the prosecution's case but Walther has heard similar arguments before in connection with the other 11 men charged following the raid. She rejected them.
"As always, with every possible turn in this trial, we would ... beg for more time," said lead defense lawyer Deric Walpole. Walther has already denied repeated defense requests to postpone the trial.
Walpole was hired just a week ago, after Jeffs fired his former lawyer in what the prosecution called a delay tactic. Detoto joined the case at beginning of July. Typically, lawyers have a year or more to prepare for a trial like this, she said.
The defense may still file a change-of-venue motion to move Jeffs' trial out of San Angelo to a jurisdiction where the case is less well-known, Detoto said Tuesday.
During jury selection Tuesday morning, prosecutors complained when Walpole launched into a series of long, involved questions asking a crowd of more than 200 possible jurors whether they could consider Jeffs innocent until proven guilty. As attorneys asked their questions, the potential jurors held up numbered cards of laminated blue paper to indicate their responses.
" If you look into your heart ... if you're not truly presuming my client is innocent as you sit here right now ... hold your card up high. Don't be shy," Walpole said.
Referring to extensive publicity, he said, "This case has already been on trial."
His comments prompted prosecutor Eric Nichols to object that the defense attorney was already making his case to the jury.
"Your honor, again, we're just arguing at this point," Nichols said. Though just more than 100 potential jurors said they'd already decided on Jeffs' guilt or innocence, 60 or so said they had not read anything about the case.
Abbott has declined to comment on whether Jeffs fathered children with the two alleged victims of sexual assault. DNA tests of the more than 400 FLDS children who were taken into protective custody during the raid have been presented as evidence of underage pregnancies in trials of other FLDS men. The children were later returned to their parents.
Abbott also has 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.
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