The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs’ conviction on two counts of rape as an accomplice and sent the case back for a new trial, saying there were “serious errors” in instructions given to the jury that deprived Jeffs of a fair hearing.
The justices unanimously ruled 5th District Judge James Shumate erred when he rejected a defense request to instruct jurors that in order to convict, they must find that in performing a marriage Jeffs knew unwanted sex would take place and intended for a rape to occur.
In its opinion, the high court acknowledged the controversy surrounding the case.
“We regret the effect our opinion today may have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain,” wrote Justice Jill Parrish for the court. “However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case, in order to protect the constitutional principles on which our legal system is based. We must guarantee justice, not just for this defendant, but for all who may be accused of a crime and subjected to the State’s power to deprive them of life, liberty, or property hereafter.”
Jeffs is the ecclesiastical leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect has about 10,000 members, mostly located in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia.
Jeffs was convicted in September 2007 on two counts of being an accomplice to rape for a marriage he conducted between Allen G. Steed and Elissa Wall, then 14. Wall testified during Jeffs’ trial that she objected to the union and, initially, to having sex with her husband but Jeffs ignored her requests to be let out of the marriage.
Attorneys Walter F. Bugden Jr., Tara Isaacson and Richard Wright filed the appeal on Jeffs’ behalf in December 2008.
Nancy Volmer, court spokeswoman said the state could file a petition for a re-hearing with the Utah Supreme Court, which would then grant or deny the petition. If a petition for re-hearing is not filed, the Supreme Court will send the case file back to the trial court within 30 days. The 5th District Court would then have 30 days to schedule a hearing.
The Washington County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Jeffs’ original case, is aware of the decision to award Jeffs a new trial, said Brian Filter, a senior deputy attorney.
Filter said prosecutors plan to review the opinion more thoroughly, speak with victims in the case and make a plan for how to respond.
“We’re going to look at this from a legal perspective and review the case and decide what to do that is in the best interest of justice,” Filter said.
Bugden said in a news conference that he and Isaacson are ready and able to re-try the case.
“Bring it on,” he said.
Bugden said he and Isaacson plan to visit Jeffs at the Draper prison later today to tell him about the ruling. Jeffs is expected to be transferred into the custody of Washington County, Bugden said. A bail hearing motion will then be filed.
If the case goes to trial again, Budgen said he would seek a change of venue.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he was “very disappointed” with the ruling, which could make the case “very difficult to retry.”
“We will leave our options open as far as whether we retry the case or whether we go over to the legislature and seek some type of legislative change for future cases,” he said.
Both Shurtleff and Assistant Attorney General Laura Dupaix said beyond the sting of Monday’s loss is a larger concern.
“Our biggest concern is, obviously, how do we protect young girls...from being forced by their leaders to marry older men and have sex with them,” Shurtleff said. “That is what we’re left scratching our heads [about], is how can we provide justice to those children?”
Dupaix said the office always knew the case against Jeffs was “very difficult legal theory,” but felt there was a duty to pursue it.
“We’re faced with a very unique situation where you have a religious leader in a closed society, with such authority, such power, particularly over the minds of children, to not go contrary to the prophet-leader’s will,” she said. “That’s why we felt like we had an absolute duty to go forward with this....”
Wall’s attorney, Roger Hoole, also plans to address the media at 2 p.m. today.
In the appeal, Bugden argued Wall’s 2001 marriage was pushed by her stepfather, mother and siblings and that Jeffs, then first counselor to his father Rulon T. Jeffs, merely served as the officiant at the ceremony.
Dupaix had aruged Jeffs had total control over Wall and could have released her from the marriage. When Jeffs counseled the couple during their marriage ceremony to “go forth and multiply,” he knew they would have sex.
Bugden argued the state had twisted that “common religious language” to fit the overly broad enticement language in Utah’s rape statute. Those words are not a command to commit or submit to rape, he said. He argued that if forced sex took place the groom — not Jeffs — was responsible.
The justices agreed, saying that Jeffs was entitled to have his requested instruction given to the jury. Instead, Shumate approved an instruction that erroneously focused on Jeffs’ actions and position of special trust as a religious leader, rather than on Steed’s actions.
“Even if Jeffs never intended for Steed to rape Wall, the jury instruction allowed for the possibility that he would be found guilty simply because he intentionally performed the marriage ceremony and the existence of the marriage aided Steed in raping Wall,” the opinion said.
Accomplice liability “cannot enter the equation until after a determination has been made that a crime has been committed,” the court.
The court said that its decision in the Jeffs case was consistent with its previous rulings finding an individual cannot be categorized as an accomplice if there was no intention that a crime be committed.
Steed was charged with rape after he testified in Jeffs’ trial. The case is on hold pending a decision from 5th District Judge G. Rand Beacham on whether the statute of limitations had expired when the state charged Steed.
The prosecutor also is currently investigating allegations that falsified documents were entered as evidence in Jeffs’ trial.
The defense raised other issues in its appeal, including an argument that Shumate erred when he excused a juror during deliberations after learning she had failed to disclose during the selection process that she had been a victim of rape. The jury had deliberated 13 hours at that point. An alternate was seated and a verdict was reached three hours later.
But the justices said it did not need to address that or other issues in the appeal given its finding on the jury instruction.