Skip to main content

Sect leader warns of 'death' to 'those who prosecute the church'

By the CNN Wire Staff
Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs declined to give an opening statement Thursday after firing his attorneys in his sexual assault trial.
Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs declined to give an opening statement Thursday after firing his attorneys in his sexual assault trial.
  • NEW: Warren Jeffs vows a "judgment" against those who "prosecute (his) church"
  • NEW: The Texas judge warns him against calling "for the jury's destruction"
  • NEW: The jury, which will decide if he's guilty of sexual assault, isn't present at the time
  • Representing himself, the polygamous sect leader touts religious freedom

San Angelo, Texas (CNN) -- A Texas judge warned Warren Jeffs against calling "for the jury's destruction" shortly after the polygamous sect leader said Friday during his sexual assault trial that those who prosecuted his church would face "sickness and death."

The comments that precipitated the warning to Jeffs, who has been granted the right to represent himself, occurred around midday after Judge Barbara Walther had sent the jury out of the San Angelo courtroom.

"I, the Lord God of heaven, ask the courts to cease the prosecution of my holy ways," Jeffs said. "There will be a judgment against all those who prosecute the church. ... I shall let all people know of your unjust ways. I will bring sickness and death. Let this cease."

Walther then told him that "if you call for the jury's destruction" while the jury -- who will decide if Jeffs is guilty on two counts of sexual assault on a child -- is present, "you will be removed from the courtroom."

The defendant responded by saying, "I am not threatening. I am releasing a message."

Warren Jeffs asks to represent himself
FLDS compared to organized crime
Polygamist prophet preaches from jail

The exchange was one of several contentious ones Friday, when the one-man defense team ended his self-imposed silence by repeatedly interrupting prosecutors and launching into a diatribe on religious freedom.

Jeffs' trial stems from a 2008 raid on a ranch near Eldorado, Texas, run by his church, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This trial addresses the two sexual assault counts, while Jeffs is expected to be tried later on a related bigamy charge.

Several people took the stand Friday, including a doctor who conducted DNA tests on one of Jeffs' alleged sexual assault victims and her baby; a Texas child protective services agent who took part in the raid; and an FBI agent who took various items from the ranch.

Representing himself, Jeffs interrupted when FBI agent Jeff Broadway began to describe what he found on a computer seized in the raid. Broadway said the computer contained lists of people living at the ranch, including their names, ages and birthdays.

Jeffs then spent about an hour objecting to Broadway's testimony on the grounds that it violated religious freedom, claiming the FBI agents "touched upon what we find sacred to salvation."

"This must stop, in a land ... where we maintain the constitutional right of religious freedom," he said. "We are not a fly-by-night religious organization that just appeared within your borders. Mockery must cease. This is sacred to us, and must remain sacred."

But prosecutors responded that Jeffs' First Amendment arguments were not valid in this case. Over frequent interruptions by Jeffs -- including more than six in a row -- they argued that freedom of religion does not extend to polygamy or infringing on a child's rights. The judge later advised Jeffs to seek counsel from his former attorney.

Ruby Gutierrez of the Texas Department of Families and Protective Services, who was one of those who took custody of the children after the raid, testified that the 12-year-old girl whom Jeffs alleged sexually assaulted resembled Pippi Longstocking with her red hair and freckles. Jeffs objected to the girl's picture being shown in court, and argued that her name should not be released.

A Texas Ranger who was part of the raid, Don Williams, described to jurors how he went into the compound's temple. Jeffs interrupted him on numerous occasions, calling his testimony "an intrusion, a desecration of sacredness."

"I'm requesting true justice and protection of religion," the defendant said.

Jeffs had voiced similar views Thursday, when he argued that he felt no counsel could adequately represent him in order for "true justice to be served."

After warning him of the challenges of representing himself, Walther granted Jeffs' request to effectively fire his attorneys. But the judge declined to push back the opening arguments, which were scheduled for later that afternoon.

Prosecutor Eric Nichols told jurors that they would hear an audiotape documenting the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. He also promised to present DNA evidence proving that Jeffs fathered a baby girl with a 14-year-old girl.

But when the time came for Jeffs -- who had been verbose earlier in the day -- to talk, he instead sat quiet. He remained that way, with his head down, for about a minute as jurors looked back and forth between him and the judge.

Walther said she understood that, by Jeffs' silence, he had chosen not to give a statement. Then she gave prosecutors the go-ahead to start calling witnesses.

The judge previously had told jurors that she expected the trial could last two to three weeks. But that was before Jeffs won the right to represent himself.

On Friday, prosecutors said that they had worked late into the night readjusting their approach and vowed to rest their case by next Tuesday.

Jeffs' breakaway sect is believed to have about 10,000 followers. Their practice of polygamy, which the mainstream Mormon Church renounced more than a century ago, is part of their doctrine.

The sect's leader, Jeffs, was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list when he was arrested five years ago during a routine 2006 traffic stop in Las Vegas.

He was convicted in Utah of two counts of being an accomplice to rape, for using his religious influence over his followers to coerce a 14-year-old girl into marrying her 19-year-old cousin. Afterward, he was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of five years to life.

But in July 2010, the Utah Supreme Court overturned his convictions, ruling that the jury instructions were erroneous. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told HLN this week that he would be open to putting Jeffs on trial again in his state.

Meanwhile, the Texas legal proceedings were set off after about 400 children were taken from the sect's Yearning for Zion ranch in 2008. Child protection officials said they found a "pervasive pattern" of sexual abuse on the ranch through forced marriages between underage girls and older men.

But the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state had no right to remove the children. The court also said the state lacked evidence to show that the children faced imminent danger of abuse. Most of the children were returned to their families, although some men at the ranch were charged with sexual abuse.

CNN's Gary Tuchman and In Session's Jim Kyle contributed to this report.