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San Angelo, Texas • Warren Jeffs broke his public silence Friday, opening the vocal floodgates by saying God would bring "sickness and death" to those prosecuting his West Texas trial and haranguing jurors with a nearly hour-long defense of polygamy.
The 55-year-old leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints interrupted the fifth day of his trial to passionately argue the proceedings were trampling his right to religious freedom and condemn the exposure of "sacred" church documents.
"I say to you, the government is stepping beyond the bounds," said Jeffs, who has insisted on representing himself. "The mockery must cease, that which is sacred to us must be kept sacred."
He is charged with sexually assaulting two underage girls he allegedly took as plural wives, one a 15-year-old and the other a 12-year-old.
After ending his sermon-like speech with an "amen," Jeffs took his rhetoric up a notch. After Judge Barbara Walther dismissed the jury, Jeffs began reading from a piece of paper that he claimed contained "Jesus Christ's own words."
"I will wrest your power. I shall judge you. I shall let all peoples know your unjust ways," he said. "I will send a scourge upon the counties of prosecutorial zeal to be humbled by sickness and death."
Walther warned him that if he or the God he claims to communicate with directed any threats of harm at the jury, she would remove him. Then she started the trial again.
Following his outburst, Jeffs continued to object at almost every turn to the evidence presented by the prosecution, including blueprints of a home at his followers' remote Yearning for Zion Ranch, photos of tall steel doors surrounding the ranch's enormous white limestone temple and large records vaults inside the temple. The evidence was gathered during a massive 2008 raid.
"I cannot stop. This must not be a desecration so great," Jeffs told the court. "It is too sacred to be paraded before the public."
Finally, a bailiff turned off his microphone and moved it away.
Jeffs was initially moved to speak when prosecutors presented a church record purportedly listing the names, ages and birth dates of his wives and children. The FLDS believe that detailed documentation of their lives is necessary for exaltation, former members say the records on Earth must match those in heaven.
As leader of the FLDS since 2002, Jeffs has until now been extremely secretive, never giving a media interview or speaking publicly as he faced charges related to underage marriage in Utah and Arizona. His commandment to FLDS members caught up in court proceedings has often been to ignore the court, or "answer them nothing."
He seemed to be taking his own advice Thursday, as he sat silently by, doing and saying nothing as prosecutors entered public documents establishing basic information about himself and his two alleged victims.
But the words Jeffs spoke Friday sounded similar to his recent dictations from jail, which include "warnings to the nation" and threats of natural disasters in President Barack Obama's home state of Illinois. Jeffs has been predicting to his followers for months that he would be delivered from jail before the trial could take place, and they built a mansion for him, anticipating he would be freed around the first of the year.
Jeffs, who is thought to have close to 90 wives, faces up to life in prison if convicted. If he is found guilty, he will be sentenced by the Texas jury in a proceeding that could unleash evidence of hundreds of other so-called bad acts, including at least 10 underage marriages authorities have already introduced in other courts.
Jeffs on Friday defended polygamy as a "pure, natural way of life," one of "God's law(s)," that people had been following since Joseph Smith first practiced it 150 years ago (the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long ago renounced polygamy). Jeffs said his approximately 10,000 followers in the U.S. and Canada are good, moral people who do not abuse their children, and who educate and groom them well.
"We are not a fly-by-night religious society," he said. But he did not mention underage marriage.
Six witnesses for the state testified Friday, including a child protective worker who described the 12-year-old alleged sexual assault victim as looking like "Pippi Longstocking."
Prosecutors say he took the girls as plural wives and sexually assaulted them in 2005 and 2006. As evidence, they plan to present DNA tests done on the 15-year-old and her young child, prosecutor Eric Nichols said Thursday.
Authorities took those DNA tests, along with a 1.7 billion-page cache of documents, photos and records, as part of the 2008 raid. More than 400 children who were taken into protective custody, but later returned to their parents.
Prosecutors also plan to use an audiotape of the alleged assault on the 12-year-old girl, seized from a Cadillac Escalade Jeffs was riding in when he was arrested in August 2006.
Jeffs announced Thursday morning he would be representing himself. He has now fired a total of seven high-powered defense attorneys, a team Walther said could be among the best ever assembled in the state. She reluctantly allowed him to represent himself Thursday, but ordered lead defense attorney Deric Walpole to stay on as standby counsel. Walpole sat in the gallery Friday, taking notes.
"I'm ready to jump in if asked to do so," he said. Court will convene again on Monday at 9 a.m.
Nichols at one point attempted to rebut Jeffs' defense of polygamy by referring to a Supreme Court decision in the late-1800s that ruled out religious freedom as a defense for polygamy, but Jeffs' interruptions did not allow him to finish.
While Jeffs' erratic courtroom behavior might suggest some mental instability, he was found competent four years ago to stand trial in Utah.
In March 2007, a Utah judge asked Jeffs' attorneys to have their client evaluated after he appeared emaciated and detached during a hearing that preceded his trial for allegedly abetting a rape by performing a 2001 marriage ceremony between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
Two psychologists met with the sect leader; one described him as depressed, anxious and, while not suffering hallucinations, reported having "impressions." Based on the results of the evaluations, the judge later ruled Jeffs was "absolutely healthy" and competent to proceed and assist his defense team.
Jeffs was found guilty of those charges, but last year the Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
For live updates of Warren Jeffs trial: @lwhitehurst on Twitter
More detail at: The Polygamy Blog at sltrib.com/blogs/polygblog
Jeffs' statement to the court
Warren Jeffs' purported statement from Christ to the Texas court trying him for child sex-abuse:
My statement being the Lord Jesus Christ's words as follows:
I, the Lord God in Heaven, call upon the court to now cease this prosecution against my pure and holy way coming against my church.
Let it stop now.
I am the Lord God over all that speaketh.
I will wrest your power from you.
I shall judge you.
I shall let all peoples know of your unjust ways.
I shall send a scourge upon the counties of prosecutorial zeal to be humbled by sickness and death.
Innocent people: Let this cease, lest you bring forth an eternal power of judgment upon your own lives.
This being instructions by my God ... who is the God above all.