Texan Polygamst Trials Begin

Carole McFaddan

Last week, the first criminal trial of the Texan polygamist sect began. According to the LA Times, the state prosecutor opened the trial by telling jurors that a “key member of the group illegally had sex with a 16-year-old-girl.” This trial stems from the controversial raid on the polygamous sect’s compound in April 2008, when Texan authorities commenced a massive raid on the Yearning For Zion ranch. This compound, built outside the small town of Eldorado, Texas is where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) settled as a “breakaway” sect unrecognized by the Mormon Church, which believes that polygamy brings glorification after death. The Mormon Church renounced polygamy over a century ago.

Law enforcement officials stated they responded to a call for help from a young female who expected to become a child bride and officers removed over 400 children from the compound for safety concerns. Officers later found out that the original call was a hoax.

Raymond Merrill Jessop, now 38, is charged with sexual assault of a minor, allegedly having fathered a child with the daughter of the sect’s prophet, Warren Jeffs. The young girl was one of Jessop’s nine “wives,” but prosecutors argue that the marriage is not legal in Texas due to the age of the female and the lack of legality of the marriage. Jessop faces a separate bigamy charge which will be tried in a later case.

Appellate judges questioned whether Texas had a right to hold the children, all of which whom were eventually returned to the FLDS. There was growing criticism of the operation from many groups including civil libertarians, religious freedom groups, and officials in Utah who prosecuted Warren Jeffs, the sect’s leader. Jeffs is currently serving a life prison term for his conviction as an accomplice to rape.

By Texan law, one can be convicted of sexual assault of a minor if the victim is under 17. By these laws if Jessop is convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Authorities took DNA samples to prove that men in the sect were impregnating underage girls, and they charged 12 other sect members with various crimes.

This first criminal trial was unexpectedly halted on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009, due to a juror’s child coming down with a high fever and flu-like symptoms. The State of Texas’ District Judge Barbara Walther recessed the sexual-assault trial indefinitely. The trial was originally only expected to take two weeks from its start date on Oct. 28, 2009. It took over two days and the largest pool in Schleicher County history to seat the trial’s 12-member jury and its two alternates.