Polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs appeals his 2007 Utah conviction

Thursday, December 4, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY -- Attorneys for polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs asked the Utah Supreme Court to reverse his 2007 criminal conviction and direct a judge to order a new trial.

The appeal filed Nov. 26 cites improper jury instructions, the substitution of a juror and other trial errors that warrant a rehearing of the case.

The Utah attorney general's office has 60 days to respond.

Jeffs, the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was convicted of two counts of accomplice rape. The charges stemmed from a 2001 religious marriage between Elissa Wall, then 14, and her 19-year-old cousin, Allen Steed.

The Associated Press does not generally identify people who allege sexual assaults, but Wall, now 22, has spoken publicly about the case and published a book detailing her life leading up to the trial.

Jeffs, 53, was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of five years to life in Utah State Prison. The appeal called the consecutive terms an "abuse of discretion" by Judge James Shumate and unwarranted given the facts of the case.

"At most, Jeffs performed a wedding ceremony and thereafter counseled the couple to make efforts to make the marriage work," the appeal stated. "Even if the convictions are sustained, this Court should order that the sentences be served concurrently."

The appeal also asked Utah's high court to order Shumate to reconsider an earlier motion for a retrial, which alleged the court mishandled a dispute between two jurors that resulted in one person's dismissal and the appointment of an alternate. The dispute came after the start of deliberations and after the judge was advised that the jury had reached a verdict on one count. Shumate had denied a motion for retrial in April.

The appeal also said the state's laws defining accomplice liability and enticement were overly broad, leaving a wide range of people -- including counselors, health professionals and parents -- potentially liable if their advice to a minor results in sexual relations.

Jeffs is jailed in Arizona awaiting trial on charges related to other underage marriages. He also faces multiple felony indictments in Texas for sexual assault of a child and bigamy.

The FLDS church believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven. The Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Jeffs' sect is based in the neighboring communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

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