The Warren Jeffs Trial

Dispatches from the Warren Jeffs trial in San Angelo
The Warren Jeffs Trial
Photo by Katy Vine

Editor’s Note: Senior Editor Katy Vine, who wrote about the YFZ Ranch in 2009, is in San Angelo reporting on the Warren Jeffs trial. Read her daily dispatches from court here, and follow her on Twitter @katy_vine.

August 9, 2011
When the jurors walked in the courtroom this morning with smiles on their faces, just about everyone in the gallery figured the deliberation process wouldn’t take much time. It didn’t.

But before they could run to their cars, crank up the air conditioning, and drive away as quickly as possible, they’d have to hear one final closing statement from the prosecution. (Jeffs instructed his lawyers not to give a closer.) The state’s lead, Eric Nichols, talked about how Jeffs left “a trail of victims in his wake.” He pivoted off the defense’s characterization of Jeffs as Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Anyone else hear the wind knocked out of the defense attorneys on that one?) Then he ended by reminding the jury of Jeffs’ layout for a “Big House” at the YFZ Ranch. “Mr. Jeffs” he said, “the state of Texas also has a big house and this is where you belong for the rest of your days.”

In thirty-nine minutes, the jury sentenced Warren Steed Jeffs to life in prison for two charges: aggravated sexual assault of a child and sexual assault of a child. He was flown to Huntsville prison around 1:30 p.m. I think everybody was relieved the trial was finally over—that includes Jeffs’ attorneys, who were released immediately.

On the way to my car, preparing to head out of town, another reporter smiled. “Well, my friend,” he said, “I think we were both ring-side for a piece of American history.” Let us hope we don’t get that opportunity again anytime soon.

August 8, 2011 
Long before the prosecution rested their case this afternoon, a few people in the courtroom voiced what everyone else had begun wondering: Is any of the day’s testimony really going to change a juror’s mind? The group had heard enough evidence to convict Warren Jeffs on sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault charges. They had already heard two former FLDS members testify that Jeffs raped them when they were younger than eight years old. They had read dictations in which Jeffs manipulated fathers, mothers, and children; broke up families; and ran from the law as a fugitive. My guess is, the state wanted to enter as many misdeeds as possible into the record so the whole gruesome picture of a demented puppeteer could be painted, but some in the courtroom thought the effort was overkill. “It’s like the prosecution is just showing off at this point,” one colleague said with a shrug.

Most of what we heard in the proceedings today involved Jeffs’ desire to assemble young girls into a “quorum” of wives. (All told, investigators say, he married twelve minors under the age of sixteen.) On one occasion, his scribe wrote that he awoke at 5:25 a.m. and, during his conversation with the Lord, said, “Wow, whatever you say, yes sir…the Lord is showing me that I must take another young girl…he is showing me she will be easily taught…I will have to give her father the training.” A few days later, he married a twelve-year-old. (Not the same twelve-year-old who is the younger victim in this trial.) Tellingly, Jeffs was very aware that his taste for younger and younger girls would find disapproval outside the FLDS. “If they knew what I was doing they would hang me from the highest tree,” he wrote. “They would do worse than that.” Then more graphic audio recordings with minors present were played, which were probably sufficiently upsetting for the jury. In one recording, Jeffs concluded some in-depth instruction on group sex by asking, “Is this detail enough?” I think the whole courtroom wanted to shout, “Ugh! Yes!”

At this point, the jury probably needed a break from the tales of Jeffs’ oppressive cruelty, and they got it when the state described Jeffs’ disguises and his time as a fugitive. Since Jeffs is usually shown looking somber in a suit or a button-down shirt, it was pretty weird to see a photo that showed him smiling goofily, wearing a t-shirt that read “One size fits all.” The jury heard about his cross-country expedition, trying out a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a Porche. You better believe there were snickers in the courtroom, and the prosecution took the opportunity to remind the jury that while Jeffs was out driving fancy cars, he was sending word to his followers that they weren’t praying hard enough for him.

After that, the jury was thrust was back into the depths of Jeffs’ perversions. Of his 78 wives, one investigator testified, 29 were former stepmothers, 56 were sisters (related to each other, not to him), 35 were former students of his, and 24 were girls under the age of eighteen. The prosecution honed in on each of the twelve youngest wives, showing a photograph in cases where one was available. The take-away was unmistakable: he was a pedophile with unchecked power.

Everyone could feel this was the closer. By the end, there wasn’t much for the defense to say in return. After the state rested, Jeffs’ attorneys quickly did the same. I can’t say anybody could blame them.

August 6, 2011 
On Saturday, after almost two days of testimony in the punishment phase of Warren Jeffs’ trial, I began to notice that jurors met each new witness with a look of trepidation. In a two-week period they have heard so many horrific stories about the defendant—a man who, two weeks ago, was unknown to them—and I can only imagine they’re wondering, “Sweet Jesus, how much worse can it get?”

The sheer volume of information has to be difficult for the jury to process. So far, they’ve heard that he took underage brides. (Last week, they found him guilty of sexually assaulting a fifteen-year-old, with whom he fathered a child, as well as assaulting a twelve-year-old.)

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