|The Polygamist Prophet: One Step Closer to a Texas Court
By Hilary Hylton
September 9, 2010
The appearance was brief, perhaps two or three minutes, but the presence of Warren Jeffs in a Salt Lake City area courtroom this week revealed a man who has changed in the four years since his arrest. The man who was once on the FBI's Most Wanted List looked thinner, his hair, now close-cropped, dusted with gray, and he wore a pair of frameless glasses that seemed to emphasize his most distinctive feature, his wide, compelling eyes. Jeffs has reportedly suffered from illness brought on by extended periods of prayer and fasting. But the brief courtroom hearing with its mundane talk of calendars and hearings also brought the sometime "prophet" of a Utah-based polygamist sect one step closer to a Texas courtroom to face allegations of sexual assault and bigamy — perhaps law enforcement's best avenue to keep him behind bars.
Jeffs and 11 members of his Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS) were charged in 2008 by Texas authorities with a variety of felony charges, from bigamy to child abuse, following a raid on the group's Yearning for Zion Ranch in tiny Eldorado, Texas. Seven of the men have been convicted and have received sentences ranging from 7 to 75 years; another goes on trial this month. Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told TIME: "Whenever Warren Jeffs is brought to Texas, we stand ready to try him on felony charges returned by a Schleicher County grand jury."
(Will Texas have better luck with Warren Jeffs?)
Jeffs' defense team's efforts to fight extradition are a "big long shot," according to Clifford Rosky, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah. "He is going to be extradited — it's a matter of weeks, not months," Rosky says. On Tuesday, Jeffs refused to sign the waiver of extradition — a move his legal team had hinted would happen after Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert accepted the extradition request by Texas Gov. Rick Perry last month. The wrangling over his extradition will continue at a Nov. 15 hearing when it is likely Jeffs' legal team will argue he should remain in Utah until charges against him in that state are either dropped or reinstated.
(See a multi-media look at families excommunicated by Warren Jeffs.)
In August, the Utah Supreme Court tossed out a 2008 conviction in state court that found Jeffs was an accomplice to rape after he performed a marriage between Elissa Wall, 14, and her then 19-year-old first cousin, Allen G. Steed. Jeffs remains in Utah prison so far, while state government is asking its high court to reconsider its ruling. Prosecutors, however, have been mum on whether they will retry Jeffs. "We don't need him here right now," Utah Assistant Attorney General Craig Barlow said, urging the court to move forward on the Texas extradition.
Texas prosecutors need only prove the target of their arrest warrant is the real Warren Jeffs and that their charges are based on some reasonable belief that a crime occurred. During the raid on the FLDS ranch, Texas Rangers removed numerous boxes of records and computers. Later, the state assembled a detailed DNA map of the 401 children removed by child protective services from the ranch, plus samples from some of their parents who agreed to testing to reclaim their children. Among the evidence was a 2006 photograph marked "anniversary" that shows Jeffs kissing a 12-year-old girl. The photo, according to FLDS detractors depicts an abusive underage marriage, while supporters claim it is just a record of a symbolic kiss marking a spiritual marriage aimed at strengthening bonds between families. But the photo is likely to be evidence in Jeffs' Texas trial, the sort of evidence that eluded Utah prosecutors.
Meanwhile, Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran says his 15-bed jail is ready for Jeffs whenever he arrives in the small West Texas town of Eldorado. The man who spent three months eluding the FBI in 2006 also could be housed in nearby San Angelo, a city of some 88,000 residents compared to El Dorado's 1,800.
Law enforcement continues to view him as flight risk. Tuesday's hearing was delayed as attorneys and prosecutors argued. Prosecutors wanted him in prison clothes and handcuffed, defense attorneys argued he should appear unshackled in civilian clothes. The judge split the baby and Jeffs appeared in a suit, a white shirt that looked a little large in the collar, and his hands cuffed as if in prayer. As he appeared a dozen male members of the FLDS community in the courtroom audience stood and smiled at their former leader.
"He is holding up great. He is doing just fine. He is very appreciative of the Utah Supreme Court's decision. He is a prayerful man and he feels, and the people who support Mr. Jeffs believe, that their prayers were answered," Jeffs' attorney Walter F. Bugden told the Salt Lake Tribune. "He is a little thin, he is a little thin. He could use some fattening up."
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