Texas Town Braces For Polygamist Leader Warren Jeffs' Trial
(WATCH) WILL WEISSERT 07/25/11 SAN ANGELO, Texas
The first hint of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs' defense strategy came Monday when his attorney said his right to freedom of religion was trampled by Texas prosecutors, who claim he sexually assaulted two underage girls after manipulating them into "spiritual marriages."
Jury selection began Monday in the case of the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church's 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth....
Jeffs is accused of sexual assaulting two girls, one younger than 17 and one younger than 14. The charges against him include aggravated sexual assault of a child, which is punishable by up to 99 years to life in prison.
He faces a separate trial for bigamy in October.
The charges stem from an April 2008 police raid on a church compound known as Yearning For Zion outside the town of Eldorado, about 45 miles south of the West Texas oil and gas town of San Angelo. Authorities who believed girls were being forced into polygamous marriages removed more than 400 children living at the compound, and TV images of women wearing frontier-style dresses and 19th century hairdos were shown across the country.
The original call to a Texas domestic abuse hotline that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax. Most of the children seized from the compound have since been returned to their families, but the evidence collected proved enough to charge Jeffs and 11 other church men with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy.
Seven church members have been convicted and received prison sentences of between 6 and 75 years.