Jury Selection Slow and Highly Unusual

Jury Selection Slow and Highly Unusual

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John Hollenhorst Reporting Jury selection continues behind closed doors in the upcoming trial of polygamist leader, Warren Jeffs, on charges of being an accessory to rape.

Two dozen prospective jurors made it through preliminary screening in a highly unusual process that stirred up a media controversy.

The process of jury selection is moving slowly, but it's definitely making progress. Twenty-two prospective jurors made it through preliminary screening. The trial will start sometime Wednesday if they can seat a jury of eight and four alternates.

For Jeffs, the stakes are high; five years to life if the jury convicts. He's accused of using his religious authority to pressure a 14-year-old girl to marry and have sex with her older cousin.

The case has generated a lot of publicity. So Judge James Shumate has taken unusual steps to find unbiased jurors and protect them from media disclosure.

The courthouse area is off-limits to cameras for now, and news organizations are forbidden to show or name prospective jurors.

The judge is allowing one reporter at a time to observe questioning of prospective jurors. But his rules provoked controversy.

Initially, a court official said the judge ordered that "absolutely nothing" be reported from the closed door sessions. After news organizations objected, the judge clarified his order: Now we can report incidental aspects, but no personal information about prospective jurors, or the questions and answers.

So, here's something we couldn't report on Eyewitness News at 5. When I took my turn as the reporter behind closed doors, Warren Jeffs was in attendance. He appeared alert and interested, but never spoke.

(AP Photo/Jud Burkett, Pool, Sept. 7)
(AP Photo/Jud Burkett, Pool, Sept. 7)

The world got its first good look at Warren Jeffs a year ago when he appeared in a Las Vegas courtroom on August 31, 2006. He was arrested in a routine traffic stop after being on the lam, one of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives.

It wasn't long before his female accuser, shielded by anonymity, faced him in a St. George courtroom. During a hearing on November 21, she said, "He was God to us here on earth." She said Jeffs used his religious authority to push her into marriage and then sex with an older cousin she detested when she was just 14. She said, "I told Warren that he was touching me and doing things to me that I didn't know was right."

Through the course of preliminary proceedings, Jeffs seemed to become unhealthy, unfocused, and despondent.

Judge James Shumate refused to allow him to read a handwritten statement in court. Photo analysis later showed he'd written: "I have not been a Prophet and am not the Prophet."

Indeed, in his home base of Colorado City and Hildale, former members had already detected a weakening of his dictatorial grip. In March, former FLDS member Isaac Wyler said, "Things are changing drastically. People are way more open."

The challenge for the judge now is to find jurors who can render a fair verdict after hearing years of anti-Jeffs rhetoric from ousted former followers. In March, former follower Richard Holm said, "He's done such terrible things to people; his conscience must be smiting the hell out of him."

In November of 2006, Walter Bugden, Jeffs' defense attorney, said, "We believe a jury or the court will see this prosecution for exactly what it is: unacceptable religious persecution!"

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