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SAN ANGELO, Texas — A polygamist sect leader convicted of child sexual assault walked out of his sentencing hearing in protest Friday, after reading a statement he claimed was from God. The statement promised a "whirlwind of judgment" on the world if God's "humble servant" wasn't set free.
Warren Jeffs, 55, represented himself during an eight-day trial that ended with his conviction on two counts of sexual assault. The same jury must now decide his punishment — which could be up to 119 years to life in prison.
But before the punishment phase began and jurors had even been brought back into court Friday, Jeffs said, "I request the full removal of myself as an objection to all that has been presented."
He asked to keep serving as his own attorney, but state District Judge Barbara Walther said he couldn't leave and continue to represent himself at the same time. Instead, she ordered two lawyers who had been Jeffs' standby counsel, Deric Walpole and Emily Munoz Detoto, to represent him.
"Mr. Jeffs, I know this is difficult for you to understand, but you do not have control over these proceedings," Walther said. Jeffs often stands in court and waits up to a full minute before speaking. He slowly and deliberately began responding, saying "I am . . .," but Walther ordered a recess.
Jeffs never returned to court, and the proceedings continued without him. Walther ordered jurors back to court Saturday to continue hearing testimony but indicated it still may be several days before the case will be handed back to them to decide the punishment.
Walpole said he didn't know if Jeffs would be present in the courtroom Saturday. Walpole wouldn't say whether he planned on calling any witnesses, but told jurors to keep in mind that Jeffs was raised in a strict, fundamentalist community that hasn't changed in centuries.
"He's a product of his environment," Walpole said.
Jeffs is the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, which believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The more than 10,000 FLDS members nationwide see Jeffs as a prophet who is God's spokesman on Earth.
Jeffs had asked to be taken back to jail, but Walther said that would make it too difficult for his lawyers to communicate with him. Instead, he was placed in a room near the court and will be allowed to return to the hearing whenever he chooses. The judge said Jeffs won't be able to dismiss his attorneys again and go back to defending himself, however.
He burned through a slate of seven high-powered attorneys, including Walpole and Detoto, in the six months before he decided to represent himself, and Walther said he did so in an effort to manipulate the court and stall the case against him.
Prosecutors' strategy during sentencing involves showing jurors evidence of Jeffs committing a slew of alleged crimes not mentioned during his trial.
For starters, Jeffs had 78 wives along with his legal spouse, and 24 of them were under age 17, said Eric Nichols, lead prosecutor for the Texas attorney general's office, which is handling the case. Nichols also said he would show that Jeffs committed six other sexual assaults and either witnessed or performed more than 500 polygamist marriages, as well as 67 other sect marriages involving underage girls.
Jeffs spent years evading arrest — crisscrossing the country as a fugitive who eventually made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list before his capture in 2006, Nichols said, and he excommunicated 60 church members he saw as a threat to his leadership, breaking up 300 families while stripping them of property and "reassigning" wives and children.
All of that is separate from the assaults on two girls, ages 12 and 15, that Jeffs was convicted of Thursday, after jurors deliberated for 3½ hours. Prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with the older victim and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting the younger one. They played other tapes in which Jeffs was heard instructing as many as a dozen of his young wives on how to please him sexually — and thus, he told them, please God.
After Jeffs left the courtroom Friday, Nichols gave an opening statement, saying Jeffs was guilty of "a breathtaking quantity of criminal activity" as head of the FLDS.
"The defendant abused not only his position, but those religious views you've heard about as a means of satisfying his own personal greed, desires and appetites," Nichols said.
Walpole responded by saying Jeffs was raised in the church and couldn't betray his own religious tenets. Jeffs took over leadership of the FLDS from his father.
"He would rather go to prison than disagree with those beliefs," Walpole said. "He'd rather make a complete mess of this case."
He later told jurors, "you've shown you can be tough. Now it's time to show you can be fair."
Written by Will Weisert of The Associated Press with contributions from John Hollenhorst.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)