Since bigamy cases rarely make it to trial, this month’s court proceeding involving 71-year-old Wendell Loy Nielsen is notable. Nielsen was president of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints for a short time, and the records of his many marriages were discovered in 2008 when Texas authorities raided the Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado. Wednesday morning, a Midland jury found him guilty of illegally marrying three women when they were ages 43, 58 and 65.
The arguments (and outside opinions) are interesting. According to the San Angelo Standard-Times, Nielsen’s attorney, David Botsford told the jury, “‘You will hear evidence of celestial or spiritual marriage. … At the end of this trial, I believe you will conclude that the state has not proven that Mr. Nielsen was part of a marriage that would constitute a marriage’ under the bigamy statute. Special Prosecutor Eric Nichols disagreed: Religious documents would show Nielsen was living with people and claiming to be married, as written in the Texas bigamy laws, he said. Jurors will see “documents showing that they became a part of the family unit. They were held out by the parties as being married,” Nichols said.
So was he technically “married” to numerous women? The state needed to prove that he was. Enter family law expert Jack Sampson, whom trial-watchers in San Angelo would know well for his frequency on the witness stand at FLDS cases. Sampson testified “that the marriages would have been legal marriages, common law at least, if not for the previous marriage,” said the San Angelo paper. (See Texas Penal Code 25.01.) That must have sealed the deal.
The San Angelo Standard-Times is live-blogging the punishment phase. Be sure to catch that here. Prosecutor Eric Nichols (who awfully busy these days) will likely introduce internal FLDS paperwork showing that Nielsen married 34 women in addition to his legal wife. Paperwork also shows that he performed marriages between Warren Jeffs and underage girls, something that is unlikely to play well with jurors.
He faces two to 10 years in prison and up to $10,000 fine.