Jury selection began in Texas Monday in the first criminal case to go to trial after a polygamous sect was accused of child abuse last year.
In April 2008, as the child-abuse accusations came to light, some 450 children were removed from a ranch operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). It became the largest child-custody case in US history, and it was largely resolved when the Supreme Court of Texas ruled the following month that the children should be reunited with their parents.
But criminal investigations of some members of the group – which seeks to live in a closed society – continued. Now, Raymond Jessop is set to stand trial, charged with sexual assault of a child – an underage girl he allegedly married first. If convicted, he could serve 20 years in prison. Eleven other men have been charged with crimes ranging from failure to report child abuse to bigamy.
“These trials may demonstrate a clash between an asserted right to freedom of religion and the necessity of residents to abide by criminal laws,” says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The message of these trials, she says, may be: “If you live in our country, you must abide by our criminal laws. Some activities are not made legal simply because one claims he is exercising his religious freedom.”
For now, however, the immediate question is whether the judge can seat a proper jury in the remote, west Texas town of Eldorado. The court needs to find 14 people in a county of 2,800 who can set aside what they heard about the sect last year in a deluge of media reports.
“It’s extremely unlikely that we’ll have anyone who will say they have not heard about this trial,” state District Judge Barbara Walther said at a pretrial hearing, according to the Associated Press.
It’s not inconceivable that the location of the trial may be shifted.
“While judges rarely grant change-of-venue requests, if they cannot find an appropriate jury pool in Eldorado, such a request may be granted,” Ms. Levinson says.
The accusations against the sect surfaced when a woman in Colorado allegedly called a Texas domestic-abuse hot line in March 2008, feigning to be a teenage girl with a far older husband at the ranch who beat and raped her. Texas officials moved in quickly, taking more than 400 children out of the compound where they lived. The officials also removed hundreds of boxes of photos and documents to build their case. Texas law enforcement has acknowledged that the hot-line information was false, but the caller has not been charged, according to the Associated Press.
The state had moved to protect so many children out of concern that the ranch overall had allowed illicit behavior. But the Texas high court reversed the broad action of state officials.
Now, judicial proceedings are focused on Mr. Jessop, and his trial will be closely watched, say Levinson and other legal observers.
“There is a lot of attention on this trial, and for that reason I believe the prosecutors will dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ in this case,” Levinson says. The prosecution has listed 59 potential witnesses.
Defense attorneys are likely to zero in on the false report that triggered the initial raid and the ruling by the Supreme Court of Texas.
Among the many details that potential jurors already know about are those of sect leader Warren Jeffs, who was captured in 2006 and convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape.
Revered as a prophet by FLDS, Mr. Jeffs has been accused in Arizona and Utah of arranging underage marriages with sect girls. He is jailed in Arizona awaiting trial on charges related to underage marriages there.
The FLDS split with the larger Mormon church after it officially banned polygamy in the late 1800s.
The trial for Jessop is expected to last two weeks.