SAN ANGELO, Texas -- Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs' much-anticipated Texas trial begins in earnest Thursday, with prosecutors claiming he sexually assaulted girls he manipulated girls into "spiritual marriage," and defense attorneys countering that their client's religious freedoms were trampled.
Opening arguments are scheduled for Thursday, immediately following a hearing on whether evidence recovered when Jeffs was arrested after a 2006 traffic stop along a Nevada highway can be presented to jurors during the trial.
The 55-year-old Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with sexually assaulting two girls, one under 17, one age 12. If convicted, he could go to prison for life. The charges stem from a 2008 police raid on a remote church compound.
Jeffs is also scheduled to go to trial for bigamy in October. His sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It has more than 10,000 members nationwide, and his high-powered defense team is being financed by an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.
Jeffs has had seven attorneys appear on his behalf in recent months, leading to a six-month delay to the start of his trial. All of Jeffs' lawyers have been tight-lipped about their approach to the case.
However, as jury selection began this week, Jeffs' latest attorney, Deric Walpole, gave the first public hint of Jeffs' planned defense, saying "my client's right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy."
Walpole also said Jeffs provides input on all motions he files.
Prosecutors have likewise refused to comment on their strategy, and it's unclear if the two young women at the center of the case will be called to testify. FLDS faithful have in the past not testified against fellow members.
On Wednesday, District Judge Barbara Walther denied a motion to suppress evidence seized at the Yearning For Zion ranch outside tiny Eldorado, Texas, in April 2008, clearing the way for a small mountain of documents, including marriage and birth records, to be presented.
At issue during Thursday's suppression hearing, meanwhile, will be the traffic stop nearly two years earlier. Jeffs was in hiding and on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list by August 2006, when Nevada police stopped a red Cadillac Escalade for having an obstructed license plate. The tall, lanky passenger in the back turned out to be Jeffs.
The vehicle was registered to another church member and the driver, Warren's brother Isaac Jeffs, authorized authorities to search the Escalade. Thursday's hearing is to determine whether Jeffs has the standing -- as someone other than the driver or owner -- to challenge the search of the vehicle, and can therefore block evidence seized from it from being used at his trial.
The massive 2008 raid at Yearning For Zion, a compound about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs' trial is taking place, featured the FBI and police SWAT teams. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the ranch appeared on 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 were being forced into polygamist marriages. Based on that report, Walther signed the search warrant authorizing the raid.
The call turned out to be a hoax, made by a woman in Colorado, and the children were returned to their families. But once on the compound, 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, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years -- despite other FLDS members not testifying against them.
Defense attorneys had argued unsuccessfully that police had indications the call was phony, but hid them from Walther to ensure the search was authorized.
Walther found the defense had not raised enough doubts about the veracity of the search warrant, and denied its suppression motion.