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Regional & National

Polygamist leader represents himself; says nothing

July 28th, 2011 9:59 pm by Will Weissert

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — A Texas prosecutor told jurors Thursday he would present an audio recording of Warren Jeffs raping a 12-year-old girl and DNA evidence showing he also impregnated a 15-year-old, providing the first hint of the state's case against the polygamist sect leader.

Opening statements came shortly after the 55-year-old Jeffs fired his high-powered defense team and asked District Judge Barbara Walther to be allowed to represent himself, while also imploring for more time to prepare his defense. She agreed he was competent enough to be his own attorney but refused to delay the proceedings.

Jeffs stared into space as special prosecutor Eric Nichols alleged he had assaulted the two girls in 2005 and 2006 at a remote sect compound in West Texas. The ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had entered into "spiritual or celestial marriages" with the girls, Nichols said.

Jeffs declined to give an opening statement and remained seated and mute while Nichols presented the prosecution's case. He didn't take notes or seem to pay attention as the prosecution called its first five witnesses — all law enforcement officials who described obtaining DNA evidence from Jeffs and the alleged victims.

"You've sat here now for an hour and not said a word," Walther said at one point, then added his continued ignoring of the proceedings could have "a very bad result."

His surreal silence was in sharp contrast to how Jeffs began the day, addressing Walther slowly and deliberately for 25 minutes and saying that though he had spent extensive time training his lawyers, they weren't able to present "a pure defense." But he also maintained that he could only represent himself if Walther delayed the case.

Jeffs has burned through seven attorneys in six months as an apparent stall tactic, however, and the judge said allowing for further delays would be tantamount to manipulating the court.

"Mr. Jeffs, the court is not going to recess these proceedings to let you go to law school," she said.

The defendant often waited one to two full minutes to begin speaking whenever the judge asked him a question, only to pause mid-sentence for extended periods. He said, "I feel this is an injustice being performed" and that allowing the case to go forward meant not letting, "true justice to be served, which is the purpose of the court of law in a nation that professes true justice be served."

His sect is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in Heaven, and followers see Jeffs as God's spokesman on Earth. He is charged with sexually assaulting two underage girls, and, if convicted, could face life in prison.

Jeffs' sect has more than 10,000 members nationwide, and controls a land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.

The charges against him stem from a massive police raid in April 2008 at Yearning For Zion, a sect compound about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs' trial is taking place. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the compound appeared on TV airwaves across the country wearing their traditional, frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century.

Authorities moved in after receiving an anonymous call to an abuse shelter, alleging that girls on the compound were being forced into polygamist marriages. The call turned out to be a hoax, made by a woman in Colorado, and the children were returned to their families.

But police saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant — prompting the charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men. All seven sect members who have been prosecuted so far were convicted of crimes including sexual assault and bigamy, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.

Nichols late Thursday walked witnesses through birth certificates showing Jeffs alleged victims were 12 and 15, and that the defendant was at 49 and 50 years old at the time the alleged rapes occurred. He took pains to show how authorities collected cells from the inside of an imprisoned Jeffs' cheek, and did the same to the elder victim and her daughter, Serena.

Testimony in coming days is expected to illustrate a DNA link between Jeffs, his alleged victim and her daughter. Nichols has also promised to play the recording of Jeffs having sex with the younger victim.

The proceedings moved surprisingly quickly because Jeffs raised no objections to any question from or evidence presented by the prosecution.

Wearing a dark suit, Jeffs said earlier in dismissing his attorneys, "the condition of my present defense is such that I cannot use them. They, not having all needed understanding for my defense, which wants for representation by one who knows and understands the facts of these truths."

Walther asked when he had arrived at the decision, and Jeffs launched into another long-winded answer, assuring her that neither he nor his attorneys have "been idle."

"This has been a continued labor on my part, seeing counsel often have ideas different from the needs at hand," he said, adding that his defense team never "had a true understanding of the facts."

Still, Walther ordered all of Jeffs' previous attorneys to remain on as side counsel and asked him throughout the day if he was sure he wouldn't like to bring some or all of them back on the case.

"You have assembled one of the most impressive legal teams this court has ever seen and perhaps ever seen in the state of Texas," the judge said. She later added, "I urge you not to follow this course of action."

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