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Prosecution rests in polygamist sect leader trial

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Did Jeffs tape intercourse with child?
  • NEW: Jeffs will begin presenting the defense case after lunch
  • NEW: Prosecutors play a tape they say documents the sexual assault of a 12-year-old
  • Other recordings were played for jurors on Tuesday
  • "You have to be ready for the time I need your comfort," the voice in a recording says

San Angelo, Texas (CNN) -- Texas prosecutors rested their case Wednesday in the sexual assault trial of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs after playing a key piece of evidence for jurors: an audiotape they allege documents his sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl.

One juror wiped her eyes as she listened to the recording. Another looked at Jeffs out of the corner of her eye. Still another had a hand covering her mouth.

The tape contained praying at the beginning and end, and in it a man alleged by prosecutors to be Jeffs addresses the alleged victim by name. At one point, the man asked her how she feels, and a girl replies in a small voice, "I feel fine, thank you." At another point, the man appears to address other people who are present.

"It was very hard to listen to," CNN's Gary Tuchman said of the recording. Authorities seized it from the car Jeffs was traveling in when he was arrested in 2006.

Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is charged with two counts of sexual assault on a child and one count of bigamy stemming from a 2008 raid on a ranch near Eldorado, Texas, operated by his church. He is expected to be tried on the bigamy charge later.

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Judge Barbara Walther told Jeffs, who is representing himself, that he could begin presenting the defense case after a lunch recess.

On Tuesday, the jury heard audio recordings that prosecutors said showed Jeffs instructing a 14-year-old victim and his other young "wives" on how to sexually please him in order to win God's favor.

Jeffs repeatedly and loudly objected to the playing of the recordings on religious grounds. Each time, Walther overruled him.

There can be "no claim of privilege, regardless of the religion, with respect to communications directly relevant to sexual assault of a child," prosecutor Eric Nichols said when the judge invited him to respond to Jeffs' outbursts.

Prosecutors said the tapes show Jeffs offering "celestial marriage" instructions to his young wives, telling them that tending to his needs will bring them closer to God.

"You have to know how to be sexually excited and to help each other ... and you have to be ready for the time I need your comfort," a man's voice says.

"This is your mission. This is how you abide the law," the man adds.

Many jurors lowered their heads and closed their eyes as they listened to the recordings.

At one point, the man says, "Take your clothes off. Do it right now."

The sounds of crying followed.

"Just don't think about the pain; you're going to heaven," the man says at one point.

"The world's view of sexual relations is selfish; the celestial view is not," he says at another.

The recordings were among the items confiscated during the raid on the ranch.

Before the court adjourned Tuesday night, jurors were shown a photograph of a closet where 12 white robes hung. A closeup of one of the robes showed a label with the name of one of the purported victims. Prosecutors said the girls wore the robes during these "heavenly sessions."

One of the sexual assault victims was 14 at the time of her marriage to Jeffs, prosecutors said. She bore a child by him when she was 15, they said.

If convicted, Jeffs could face a sentence of five years to life for the charge of aggravated sexual assault regarding the alleged 12-year-old. For the other count, he faces a sentence of two to 20 years.

Tuesday's objections to the audio recording were the latest in a series of objections on religious grounds that Jeffs has made. He also objected repeatedly to witness testimony about records authorities seized in the 2008 ranch raid.

At one point, Walther asked the jury to leave and then asked state prosecutors whether they wanted Jeffs to be removed from the courtroom. Prosecutors said they wanted Jeffs to stay and participate, following court rules.

Prosecutors called three witnesses Tuesday. The last, Texas Ranger Nick Hanna, took the stand for 10 hours -- laying out the family background of one of the girls, when and where she married Jeffs and the date of her daughter's birth.

Jeffs' trial started last week. He remained silent for more than a day of the trial proceedings. But on Friday, he began repeatedly objecting -- at one point responding with an hourlong speech about his religious freedom "being trampled upon."

He objected to an FBI agent's testimony Friday on the grounds that it violated religious freedom, claiming 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."

Prosecutors responded that Jeffs' First Amendment arguments were not valid in this case. Over frequent interruptions by Jeffs, they argued that freedom of religion does not extend to polygamy or infringing on a child's rights.

The judge previously 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 Thursday.

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 the sect's doctrine.

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 said last week Utah is prepared to retry Jeffs, depending on the outcome of the Texas case.

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.

In Session's Beth Karas, Christi Paul and Jim Kyle contributed to this report.