Warren Jeffs gets life in prison for sex with underage girls
Court • Jurors deliberate for a little less than 30 minutes before deciding his fate.
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San Angelo, Texas • During his bizarre self-representation on trial for sexual assault, Warren Jeffs protested over and over again the charges were an attack on his people and religion.

Before a jury sent the 55-year-old Jeffs to prison for life Tuesday, prosecutor Eric Nichols gave a forceful answer.

"The evidence in this case has shown this is not the prosecution of a people," he said. "This is a prosecution to protect a people."

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader was found guilty last week of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, who he took as polygamous wives.

Prosecutors then exposed Jeffs' misdeeds during more than 20 years of his control of the sect: underage marriage, child abuse and the forced separation of men from their families, all under what Nichols called the guise of religion.

On Tuesday, the jury deliberated for less than 30 minutes before handing Jeffs the maximum possible sentence of life plus 20 years. He will be 100 years old before he is eligible for parole.

Nichols said it was a fitting sentence for a criminal like almost no other seen in the state of Texas.

"He used his position of authority to corrupt and pervert … a religion, to continue his victimization of women and children," he said. After the sentencing, Jeffs was driven from the courthouse to the Byrd Unit prison in Huntsville.

His trial was also like few others Texas juries have seen. After District Judge Barbara Walther denied multiple requests for more time to prepare, Jeffs fired his team of high-profile defense attorneys as testimony began.

As prosecutors presented DNA evidence that Jeffs had fathered a baby with the older victim and played an audio recording of him assaulting the 12-year-old girl, Jeffs launched into spirited defenses of polygamy and objections based on freedom of religion.

Nearly all the evidence in the trial was gathered in a massive 2008 raid on a FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in remote Eldorado.

Jeffs protested the "defiling" and "breaking of a sacred trust" as prosecutors presented photos, documents, and another recording of Jeffs instructing wives on group sex and hygiene — but he never responded to the charges.

Jeffs' only defense witness was one of his own followers, who read passages from Mormon scripture at his leader's direction. Jeffs sat silently through his 30 minutes designated for a closing statement, mumbling only one sentence: "I am at peace."

After Jeffs was found guilty, the sentencing phase of the trial began. Under Texas law, the jury metes out a sentence after hearing more evidence and testimony of other so-called bad acts.

Jeffs was absent for his sentencing, when jurors heard sometimes-graphic testimony, including audio recordings of Jeffs apparently having sex in the baptismal font in his group's soaring white temple.

Prosecutors also showed evidence that Jeffs has 78 plural wives, including 12 girls married at age 16 and another 12 who were 15 or younger.

According to testimony, he gave the girls' fathers or brothers their own young brides in exchange for the young brides and at least one parent was present at all of those wedding ceremonies.

While the FLDS membership might not have been on trial, those parents and others who ignored the signs of Jeffs' abuse also bear responsibility, said former FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop.

"We wanted him so bad to be good that we were willing to condone his dereliction of people," he said. In supporting Jeffs, "we built this golden calf. Now we have to decide: Do we love God or do we love the golden calf?"

There are 10,000 members of the FLDS, many of whom live in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. They now have to begin the "long, painful process to fix the victims in his wake," Jessop said.

But others aren't sure the news of the trial will break through to the people since Jeffs banned them from using the Internet earlier this year.

"I believe the people are going to gradually see," said Elaine Jeffs, who left the sect led by her half-brother in 1984, though "it may take at least a generation."

Former FLDS member Rebecca Musser said while she celebrated the verdict and the sentence, it "does not bring back the innocence stolen or free those in bondage."

Married to former prophet Rulon Jeffs at age 19, Musser testified extensively at trial, and said she wore a red dress — a verboten color in the FLDS — to celebrate her independence.

Ezra Draper, who left the FLDS in 2003, was pleased with the sentence, but said it was small compared to the damage Jeffs has done to people's lives. Jeffs lived a luxurious lifestyle while forcing his followers to live without conveniences such as television and the Internet.

"Not only was he was committing such atrocities, such gross sexual abuses, it also was the hypocrisy, the complete deception," Draper said.

Brent Jeffs, another former FLDS member who testified his uncle Warren Jeffs molested him as a child, had a message for sect members: "We are out here, extending our hands to you, to anyone who wants to come out in any way."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com Twitter: lindsaywhit ehurstThe Polygamy Blog: http://www.sltrib.com/Blogs/polygblog —

The trial

Read The Salt Lake Tribune's past coverage of the Warren Jeffs trial at www.sltrib.com/cat/polygamy. —

What's next?

Warren Jeffs is scheduled to be tried on one count of bigamy in a Texas courtroom in October.

It was unclear Tuesday whether he will appeal his sexual assault sentence. A judge agreed to release three of his attorneys — two of whom Jeffs had already fired — following the close of trial. —

How will Warren Jeffs serve his prison time?

Warren Jeffs will be processed into prison within the next 10 days, when officials will decide what security level to place him at, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He will either be housed with the general population, in a unit for inmates who sleep apart from the general population, or go into protective custody — a form of solitary confinement for inmates with credible threats against their lives.

Jeffs has been controlling the FLDS through hundreds of phone calls a month made from a jail pay phone since his extradition to Texas early this year, former members say. But once he is in prison, Jeffs will only be able to call 10 people on a registered visitor list, Clark said. His phone calls will be limited to 15 minutes each and a total of 240 minutes a month.