Non-Prophet

A ringside seat at the surpassingly strange sexual assault trial of Warren Jeffs, who probably wishes he’d never come to Texas.
Non Prophet

It was the first day after jury selection in 
Warren Jeffs’ sexual assault trial, and Deric Walpole, the head of the defense team, seemed nervous. Tyhis was understandable, given the circumstances. Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), had discharged his court-appointed attorney in January, hired a 
Fort Worth hotshot named Jeff Kearney soon after, and dismissed Kearney abruptly in early 
July. Then, on July 20, only five 
days before jury selection was scheduled to begin at the Tom Green County courthouse in San 
Angelo, he retained Walpole, a compact, burly man with a thick 
goatee from the McKinney firm of Luce, Nordhaus, and Walpole.

Walpole spent much of that first day begging Judge Barbara Walther for a continuance. “I’ve been working twenty, twenty-one hours a day, and I’m still not ready,” he explained. “Things 
are moving even quicklier— quicker—than originally projected.” The prosecutor, Eric Nichols, sighed and countered that Jeffs had not only had plenty of time to hire counsel but had retained several highly qualified attorneys, a few of whom were sitting by Walpole’s side. One member of Walpole’s team, who had a brace on his left middle finger, just happened to be casually flexing his injured digit during the argument.

Walpole’s motion was denied, which turned out not to matter much. The next morning he announced, “Mr. Jeffs has released all defense attorneys of record and wishes to address the court.”

“Mr. Jeffs, proceed,” said Judge Walther, with an air that seemed to acknowledge that order and decorum were edging their way toward the exit.

Jeffs slowly stood up to make what would be his first-ever public speech. As a courtroom of people craned their necks to get a good view of him, the wood benches creaked. Jeffs is a tall, thin man, and he was dressed on that day in a dark suit and sensible black shoes. His graying hair was cut short, and he stooped over as if, at age 55, he’d had an early onset of osteoporosis. With his hands folded in front of his waist, he began speaking in a slow, deep, nasal monotone. “I have released all my counsel. I desire to represent myself,” he said. He paused for a few seconds. “And I would like my own motion.” Again, he paused. “I have prepared a writing of the court. I have signed this writing if the court will allow it to be presented.” Walpole passed Jeffs’s writing to the bailiff, and the judge obligingly accepted the papers. She waited a long time, growing impatient, and finally asked, “What else, sir?”

Jeffs started up again as if someone had released a pause button. “Present a motion before this court in a manner in the defense needed pertaining this case,” he said. Repeating awkward phrases strung together in a halting fashion, he mentioned requiring a “greater understanding” for “truth to be preserved.” For “true justice” to be served, he said, he needed a “full defense.” (A schoolteacher seated beside me leaned over and said, “That is not proper English.”)

When Jeffs finished, Walther pulled off her reading glasses and called a recess. Some local ladies in their sixties started whispering to one another. “This is unreal,” one said. “Oh, God,” said another. Nichols, like a boxer who suddenly found himself in the ring with an improvisational dancer, was unsure where to look or what to do. Jeffs’s lawyers quickly gravitated toward the back of the room to confer with one another. I asked Kearney, who had been fired days before but had not been withdrawn by the court, if anything like this had ever happened to him before. It was a dumb question. “No,” he said.

The trial resumed an hour later. Judge Walther asked Jeffs to reconsider his decision. When he refused, she insisted that one of his attorneys remain as “stand-by counsel” in the gallery, a job left for Walpole, with assistance from a well-manicured young Houston lawyer named Emily Detoto. The others, Walther said, could go if they wished. They did, practically leaving skid marks on the courthouse lawn.

Going full steam ahead, Nichols buttoned his suit coat and began his opening argument. A trim, bald man with an unflappable style, he had recently left his position as Texas’s deputy attorney general for criminal justice to go into private practice, but he had stayed on the case to see it through, backed up by a handful of associates. In a methodical manner, he told the jury that in charge one, the aggravated sexual assault of a twelve-year-old, they would hear an audiotape of the incident, and in charge two, the sexual assault of a fifteen-year-old, they would see evidence that a child was conceived. Both assaults, he explained, had occurred at the FLDS’s Yearning for Zion Ranch, in Eldorado, 45 minutes south of San Angelo. Holding up charts explaining the relevant Texas penal code sections, he was somber and unemotional. He never raised his voice, and when he was done, he simply walked back to his chair and sat down.

Throughout the presentation, Jeffs sat silently in his chair, alone at his long, wooden table, staring down as if he were examining the world’s slowest-moving beetle. As the day went on, Nichols questioned witnesses and displayed evidence: documents and digital media seized from the YFZ Ranch, DNA samples, public records. Each time he placed an item on Jeffs’s table, he would wait fifteen seconds, then take it away, without a word from Jeffs.

It was surprising, then, when Jeffs finally offered an objection—somewhat randomly—the next day. Not a brief one, either. It lasted more than an hour and would prove to be the longest speech of the entire proceeding. After an FBI agent named John Broadway authenticated a chart listing the members of Jeffs’s extended family, Jeffs rose from his seat.

“There is a sacred trust drawn by religious leadership,” he exclaimed, “not to be touched by government agencies. . . .

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