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San Angelo, Texas • The latest new lawyer for polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs won't get more time to prepare for trial after a West Texas judge told him Wednesday to be ready in five days to defend his client on child sex assault charges.
District Judge Barbara Walther also ordered attorneys previously hired by Jeffs to be ready for trial to begin Monday, the San Angelo Standard-Times reported. Walther even refused to excuse one lawyer who filed a motion to withdraw from the case after Jeffs fired him earlier this month, according to the Texas attorney general's office.
Jeffs, 55, is ecclesiastical head of a radical Mormon offshoot known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which believes polygamy is the key to heaven. He is charged with sexual assault and bigamy connected with two alleged underage spiritual marriage. Jeffs has run through a string of lawyers ahead of his trial on charges that could land him in prison for life.
Prosecutors have accused Jeffs of playing musical chairs with his lawyers to delay the case.
Jeffs appeared during the final pretrial hearing Wednesday with attorney Deric Walpole of McKinney. Walpole offered to replace Jeffs' most recent attorney, Jeff Kearney of Fort Worth, the Standard-Times reported. After representing Jeffs since January, Kearney filed a motion to withdraw July 7, saying Jeffs had asked for his dismissal.
Jeffs asked that Kearney not even help Walpole prepare for the case. Walpole asked for permission to represent Jeffs at trial, but said that given the circumstances, he would need at least six months to prepare.
But the judge refused to delay the case any further, and instead ordered Jeffs' past lawyers to be ready to represent him. The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office is handling the case against Jeffs. It noted Wednesday that Walpole's appearance means no fewer than seven attorneys have appeared as "counsels of record" for Jeffs.
Laruen Bean, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said Walther refused to accept Kearney's motion to withdraw and indicated she would not grant any further motions by defense attorneys to be removed from the case.
Before Kearney, Jeffs had hired prominent Austin attorney Gerry Morris on Jan. 5, only to fire him hours later. He also retained a Houston lawyer, Emilly Munoz Detoto, who filed an unsuccessful motion to have Walther removed from the case this week.
But Detoto said she already had a full slate of upcoming cases and had no intention of representing Jeffs at trial.
According to the Standard-Times, Jeffs also hired a Dallas law firm that had planned to file a motion to suppress evidence in the case but not represent him at trial.
The charges against Jeffs stem from an April 2008 police raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch outside remote Eldorado, Texas, amid suspicions that underage girls were being forced into polygamous marriages. More than 400 children were temporarily placed in state custody, and a dozen church members, including Jeffs, were subsequently charged with offenses that included sexual assault and bigamy.
Seven church members tried so far have been convicted in cases overseen by Walther. Jeffs is set to be tried in San Angelo, about 45 miles north of Eldorado and the site of the ranch.
Tribune reporter Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this story.