Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet who leads America’s largest polygamist sect, has been sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two of the dozens of underage women he took as brides.
A jury in San Angelo, Texas, yesterday handed the 55-year-old Mormon fundamentalist the maximum possible sentences after finding that he forced the teenagers into so-called “spiritual marriages” and fathered a child with one of them.
He was given a 99-year sentence for one count of child sexual abuse, and a 20-year sentence for the second, and will not be eligible for parole for at least 35 years. One of the girls was 14 when he “married” her; the other was 12.
During the trial, which ended last Thursday, the jury heard tape recordings of ceremonies that Jeffs presided over at the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas, where several thousand members of his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints lived.
In one, he told a group of girls they would be “rejected by God” if they spurned his advances. In another, he claimed they could ensure a place in heaven by joining him in group sex sessions. A third tape contained audio footage of Jeffs taking the virginity of a teenage girl while several elder “wives” watched.
"Mr Jeffs had his big house, where he chose to warehouse hundreds of girls and women for his sexual gratification," the prosecution told the jury during closing arguments. “The state of Texas has a big house too and that is where Warren Jeffs should spend the rest of his days.”
During his trial, Jeffs chose to represent himself, having fired several teams of highly-paid lawyers. He said that his lifestyle is modelled on that of the mainstream Mormon Church’s 19th Century founders, who also kept child brides. And he argued that religious beliefs are protected by the US Constitution.
That cut little ice with either the judge or the jury, which was also presented with DNA evidence that Jeffs was the father of a child born to one of his 14-year-old wives, and shown a 2005 diary entry in which he appeared to acknowledge his guilt: “"If the world knew what I was doing, they would hang me from the highest tree," it read.
Jeffs becomes the eighth man to be convicted since the FBI raided his Yearning for Zion ranch in 2008. Among the female inhabitants, who wore a uniform of prairie dresses and elaborate Victorian hairstyles, were dozens of underage girls who were clearly pregnant.
More than 400 children were immediately placed in protective custody, though they were eventually returned to their families when it emerged that the phone call to an abuse hotline which had sparked the raid was a hoax.
Legal experts believe that could now provide grounds for Jeffs, who has amassed a personal fortune estimated at $80 million, to appeal his sentence. They say that because the raid took place under false pretences, evidence uncovered during it may be inadmissible.Reuse content