Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Polygamist sect leader's rape trial begins in Utah


The rape trial of a polygamist sect leader got under way on Thursday with prosecutors alleging he ordered a 14-year-old girl to marry and have sex with a cousin despite her protests.

Warren Jeffs, 51, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which broke from the Mormon Church because of differences over polygamy, has denied two charges of acting as an accomplice to rape.

Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet whose followers believe he is descended from Jesus, was arrested in August last year outside of Las Vegas after being included on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" list.

He could face five years to life in prison if he is convicted at the court hearing in Saint George, 488km south of Salt Lake City.

The rape case against the religious leader is based on a teenage witness known only as "Jane Doe."

At an earlier hearing to determine whether the case should proceed to trial, the girl testified that she had been distraught at learning she was to marry her 19-year-old first cousin.

Prosecutor Brock Belnap told jurors on Thursday that after the girl raised objections to the marriage, Jeffs said she had a "duty to go forward and replenish" and that her "heart was in the wrong place."

"Mr Jeffs told a 14-year-old girl, who had told him she thought she was too young to get married, that it was her obligation," he said.

The girl had been brought up to believe that marrying "a righteous priesthood man was the only way she could get to heaven," Belnap said.

The victim, who is now 21, told the court on Thursday that she was powerless to resist Jeffs' instruction.

"The prophet was as God to us, he was God on earth and his counselors were in and as the same," she told the court. "They had jurisdiction over everything in our lives. They decided many things and we were to follow them obediently."

Jeffs' attorneys have said their client did nothing other than offer routine advice.

In her opening statement, defense lawyer Tara Isaacson said there was no evidence a rape had ever taken place.

"There was no rape," Isaacson said. "What did Warren Jeffs have to do with what was going on in her bedroom? Did he even know she was being forced to have sex against her will?"

Isaacson also stressed to jurors that despite the girl's tender years at the time of the alleged offenses, her age was not an issue at the trial.

"You may personally believe it's too young," she said. "For me, it's too young. But that's not the issue."

Under Utah law, Jeffs can be found guilty of acting as an accomplice to rape if he "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly" enabled another to have intercourse without consent.

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