Fundamental Arguments

On October 26, the first FLDS criminal trial in Texas begins. What legal strategies remain for the defense?
Fundamental Arguments
Photo of Raymond Merril Jessop provided by the Texas Attorney General’s office

Let’s get one thing straight: The twelve indicted men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have impressive legal representation for the upcoming criminal trials in Texas. Executive editor Mimi Swartz wrote about attorney Gerald Goldstein, who is handling the Yearning for Zion Ranch head Frederick Merril Jessop’s case, in the April 1996 issue of Texas Monthly (“ The High Times of Gerry Goldstein ”).

“It was his 1978 appeal that reversed the convictions in what has come to be known as the Piedras Negras Jailbreak Case, in which two Texans stormed the border city’s jail and, Rambo style, freed fourteen American inmates charged with drug offenses,” Swartz wrote. “He is a counselor and loyal friend to superhead Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Noriega, and has defended on drug charges the sons of such prominent men as BeBe Rebozo and assorted San Antonio swells.” Goldstein is no pushover.

That said, I’m curious to know how the various defense attorneys are going to argue the cases of sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and bigamy as the first trial of many gets underway this month. A lot of effort was put forth in the motion to suppress the evidence earlier this year. But now that the judge has ruled that the evidence gathered at the ranch can be used at the trial, the attorneys’ options are more limited.

One of Frederick’s sons, Raymond Merril Jessop, a 38 year old indicted for sexual assault of a minor and bigamy, is the initial defendant up on October 26. (Sexual assault will be tried first. Bigamy will be tried separately at a later date.) We’re starting to see some indication of his attorney’s strategy as he combats the state’s recent notice of their intent to introduce extraneous offenses. Eighteen incidents are listed within the document filed September 28. Here’s a sampling of the allegations:

•    That in 1999 he moved his 26-year-old pregnant wife out of the master bedroom into a small room and a 19-year-old wife was moved into the master bedroom.
•    That in 2005 he engaged in illegal banking activity.
•    That in 2005 he placed his 16-year-old wife and unborn baby in danger. Warren Jeffs, the church’s leader, wrote that “because of her age and the associated governmental pressures against the Prophet…going to the hospital was not an option.”
•    That in 2005 he aided and abetted and conspired with Warren Jeffs to commit acts of sexual assault and transporting a minor across state lines.
•    That in 2007 he abandoned several wives, biological children, and stepchildren.
•    That in 2007 he attempted to avoid the reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Jessop’s attorney Marc Stevens reasoned that in some cases, such as the financial allegations, the accusations are irrelevant to sexual assault. When the state brought up bigamy he reminded them that bigamy will be tried separately. These arguments seem pretty cut and dry.

Regarding allegations of the sixteen-year-old wife giving birth, Stevens contended that the state cannot prove the charges beyond reasonable doubt. This may be a tougher sell. How do you discredit the extensive, detailed writings of a man considered by the sect to be a prophet? How do you downplay in-house marriage records and photographs? We’ll find out soon enough.

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