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Jury chosen in trial for polygamist sect leader

July 27th, 2011 12:27 am by Will Weissert

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — Ten women and two men were selected to sit on the jury in the sexual assault trial of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs late Tuesday, after more than 100 potential jurors were excused for admitting they'd previously heard enough about his background to no longer presume him innocent.

An initial pool of 207 was on-hand for the second day of jury selection in the case of the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

The 55-year-old Jeffs faces two counts of sexual assault of a child. If convicted, the maximum sentence for both is 119 years to life in prison. He will have a separate trial for bigamy in October.

Eric Nichols, a special prosecutor for the Texas attorney general's office, asked those assembled if they'd heard enough about Jeffs previously to affect his guilt or innocence in their minds. Eighty-three people raised blue cards stamped with their juror numbers.

After a brief recess — which was made a bit more uncomfortable because of a water main break that affected water pressure in the courthouse — defense attorney Deric Walpole referenced those who indicated they had already made up their minds about Jeffs.

"Y'all, that's getting off to a bad start," he said. "Which is fine, as long as you're identified."

Walpole then asked if anyone no longer presumed his client innocent. "If you don't, raise your cards," he said. "Get 'em up high. Don't be shy."

That drew an objection from Nichols, but the number of cards raised eventually increased to 101.

By contrast, when Walpole asked how many people had read or seen nothing about the Jeffs case, about 60 people raised their cards.

The defense labored the point because it has already said it plans to file for a change of venue out of the oil and gas town of San Angelo — though it has yet to file the motion.

Those who said they had already formed an opinion about Jeffs were excused hours later, as were 19 others who said they couldn't punish someone convicted of sexual assault of a child with the minimum prison sentence of five years, nor consider probation.

In Texas, juries are responsible for setting the penalty for those they convict.

The remaining candidates were then split into groups to answer individual questions, which allowed both sides to settle on the jury in a matter of hours.

Jeffs appeared in court wearing a dark suit and spent much of the day whispering instructions to his lawyers, who say he plays an active role in all motions they file. Followers see Jeffs as a prophet who serves as God's spokesman on Earth.

The charges against him stem from an April 2008 police raid on a church compound known as Yearning For Zion outside the town of Eldorado, about 45 miles south of San Angelo. Authorities who believed girls were being forced into polygamous marriages removed more than 400 children living at the compound, and TV images of women in frontier-style dresses and 19th century hairdos were shown across the country.

The original call to a domestic abuse hotline that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax. Most of the children seized from the compound have since been returned to their families, but the evidence collected sparked charges including sexual assault and bigamy against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men.

The defense has filed a motion to suppress evidence in the case, which includes tens of thousands of pages of documents seized at the ranch, even Jeffs' personal journals. There will be a hearing on that Wednesday afternoon, before the jury is formally sworn in.

Even with Jeffs in prison, hundreds of people still live on Yearning For Zion, and construction crews continue at break-neck speed, erecting buildings which include a four-story, limestone temple. The FLDS controls a land trust worth more than $110 million.

When asked Tuesday, none of even the original group of would-be jurors said they had ever visited the heavily guarded Yearning For Zion compound, and only four were acquainted with anyone who lives there. Only about a dozen said they'd had contact with 14 Texas businesses the FLDS owns.

Since December 2009, all seven FLDS members to face prosecution in Texas have been convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years. Nichols served as lead prosecutor in all past church cases, but he was careful not to mention the word polygamy Tuesday.

Still, questions from both sides provided hints about the building blocks each will use to argue its case. Nichols asked about how reliable would-be jurors believed DNA evidence to be. Walpole indicated that Jeffs would not take the stand in his own defense, saying "I typically don't have my clients testify."

"It's their show, they have to present evidence," Walpole said, pointing to prosecutors. "Not guilty. That's our side of the story. Is anyone going to hold it against Mr. Jeffs if that's all we say is, 'not guilty?'"

Only one potential juror raised his card in response.

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