Constitutional Law

Jeffs Wins Appeal of Rape Convictions Based on His Role as Minister at 14-Year-Old's Wedding

Agreeing with defense lawyers that a claimed marital rape involving two teenagers hadn’t been properly focused upon in jury instructions, the Utah Supreme Court has overturned unusual felony accomplice rape convictions of a religious leader based on his role in promoting an underage marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old and her 19-year-old cousin.

Jury instructions in the trial of Warren Jeffs, who is now 54, were fatally flawed, explains the court in its written opinion (PDF) today, because they allowed the jury to find Jeffs guilty, as the minister who promoted the marriage and performed the ceremony, regardless of whether Jeffs intended that the 14-year-old victim be raped by her cousin.

The instructions also were faulty in other ways, the court says, because they equated the “actor” in applicable state statutory law with the defendant in the accomplice rape case (that is to say, Jeffs), rather than with the 19-year-old husband, who was, in fact, the actor in the rape alleged to have occurred.

The court concludes with an apology, writing:

“We regret the effect our opinion today may have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain. However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case, in order to protect the constitutional principles on which our legal system is based. We must guarantee justice, not just for this defendant, but for all who may be accused of a crime and subjected to the State’s power to deprive them of life, liberty, or property hereafter.”

Responding to the ruling, the state attorney general indicated it could be the end of the case. Although the state hasn’t decided whether to retry Jeffs, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says it will be difficult to win an accomplice-rape conviction under the jury instruction standards set by the supreme court, the Deseret News reports.

Sentenced in 2007 to two consecutive terms of five years to life, Jeffs is a leader in a controversial religious group that reportedly advocates polygamy and underage spiritual marriages. Known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is one of numerous sects that broke from the mainstream Mormon church after it banned polygamy in 1890.

Although he will now get a new trial in the accomplice rape case or perhaps may not even be tried again, it still isn’t clear that Jeffs will be released from prison any time soon.

Texas authorities are seeking to extradite him to face charges of bigamy, sexual assault of a child and aggravated assault concerning alleged teenage marriages there, reports the Associated Press. These charges resulted from records obtained during a controversial 2008 raid on a church ranch near Eldorado.

Additional and related coverage:

ABA Journal (2007): “Violation or Salvation”

ABA Journal (2008): “Discovering Eldorado” (2008): “DNA Taken From FLDS Leader Jeffs re 4 Alleged ‘Marriages’ to Underage Girls”

BBC News: “Retrial ordered in Warren Jeffs polygamous US sect case”

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