SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah Supreme Court decision that overturns polygamous church leader Warren Jeffs’ 2007 criminal conviction won’t automatically make him a free man. Even if Utah doesn’t retry him, Texas and federal prosecutors are waiting to move forward with their own cases.
Justices on Tuesday unanimously said Jeffs should get a new trial because state attorneys overreached in their argument that performing the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin amounted to facilitating a rape.
Utah officials now have two weeks to seek a rehearing before the state’s high court and then a month to decide if they’ll retry the 54-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on charges of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice.
Authorities in Texas are trying to get him sent there to face charges in connection with his own alleged marriages to underage sect girls in 2005. A federal indictment stemming from Jeffs’ stint as a fugitive on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list is also pending.
“He would not go free,” said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Utah.
Any federal prosecution would likely come after cases in Utah and Texas are resolved, Rydalch said, but in the hours after the ruling, it was unclear just how the states would proceed.
“We’re going to take a look at this case anew and do a legal analysis of the ruling,” Deputy Washington County Attorney Brian Filter said. “We’re going to talk to the victim and to law enforcement. What we’ve done from the beginning is tried to seek justice in the case, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. Where that takes us, I don’t know.”
In 2007, a jury convicted Jeffs on two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 spiritual marriage of Elissa Wall and Allen Steed.
Jeffs performed the marriage ceremony in a Caliente, Nev., motel and later counseled Wall to be obedient and give her “mind, body and soul” to her husband to make her marriage work.
The Associated Press does not typically name victims of alleged sexual assault, but Wall has frequently spoken publicly about the case.
During the trial and later in her book, “Stolen Innocence,” Wall said she objected to the marriage and was forced into sexual relations with her husband.
Prosecutors argued that Jeffs’ abuse of his religious authority made him guilty of accomplice rape.
But in its ruling, Utah’s high court said 5th District Judge James Shumate improperly rejected defense-proposed jury instructions that would have required the panel to determine that Jeffs intended for a rape to occur when he conducted the marriage.
The court also said state attorneys were wrong to equate Jeffs’ actions and role as a religious leader with Steed’s alleged act. Steed was charged with rape the day after Jeffs’ conviction, but the case has never been resolved.
Jeffs’ defense attorney Wally Bugden said the state was so invested in bringing down “an unpopular religious figure” that it relied on the wrong legal theories.
“They mixed and matched and confused the theories of accomplice liability, with the theories of lack of consent … stretching, pushing the law beyond the limits of what was reasonable so that ultimately the Supreme Court agreed with us basically on every point that all of the jury instructions were wrong,” Bugden said.
At a courthouse news conference Wall called the court’s ruling “emotionally devastating,” but said justice had not been served and she would find the strength to testify against Jeffs again if needed.
“This is not the end and I, by no means, am backing down,” she said. “I am still in shocked understanding that there is a huge possibility that we would do this all again and more than anything, that Warren Jeffs is possibly going to walk away.”
Assistant Utah Attorney General Laura Dupaix called the court’s ruling unfortunate and said it could make it harder to prosecute people who force young girls into unwanted marriages.
The FLDS church is one of at least 11 distinct self-described Mormon fundamentalist communities that consider plural marriage an essential religious doctrine that brings exaltation in heaven.
“I don’t think the ruling forecloses us continuing to go after men like Warren Jeffs and prosecuting them for their crimes, which the state considers heinous,” DuPaix said.
Tuesday’s ruling also comes as Washington County authorities investigate allegations that Wall may have lied about her medical records that were used in the trial. Filter declined to comment on the status of that investigation or its impact on any decision about a future prosecution of Jeffs.
Texas authorities have charged Jeff with bigamy, sexual assault of a child and aggravated assault related to alleged marriages between Jeffs and girls ages 17 and 15 in 2005. The cases are based on information from family records gathered during a 2008 raid on a church ranch near Eldorado.
After Tuesday’s ruling, however, an extradition hearing in 3rd District Court was canceled because Texas’ request to bring Jeffs there was based on his status as a convicted felon in custody. It will now have to be refiled in 5th District Court.
Jeffs will oppose extradition, Bugden said.
Wall said she has not been contacted by Texas authorities cases, but said she is hopeful that the lack of accomplice liability issues in those cases will make it “easier for them to have a conviction stick.”
Jeffs has been serving two consecutive terms of five years to life at the Utah State Prison, but with the court’s reversal, he is now considered innocent and should soon be moved back to Washington County’s jail, Bugden said. Defense lawyers plans to ask for a bail hearing and hope to secure Jeffs’ release.
It seems unlikely that would occur. Federal prosecutors planned to file a detainer for Jeffs with the jail late Tuesday, Rydalch said.
“Even if everything else goes away, he would come in on the federal charges,” she said.