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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed the convictions of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and ordered a new trial, saying a jury received incorrect instructions before considering his role in the 2001 nuptials of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.
The high court reversed Jeffs' 2007 conviction of rape as an accomplice, saying jury instructions on what constitutes "lack of consent" were in error.
We're overjoyed that the Supreme Court agreed with what we've said from the very beginning, that the state shows the wrong legal theory. Mr. Jeffs should never have been charged with being an accomplice to rape.
–Defense attorney Walter Bugden
Jeffs performed the religious marriage of Elissa Wall and Allen Steed in a Caliente, Nev., motel and later counseled Wall to be obedient and give her "mind, body and soul" to her husband in an effort to make an unhappy marriage work.
Jeffs, 54, was convicted in 2007 of two counts of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice. He is serving two consecutive terms of five years to life in the Utah State Prison.
The court ruled that trial judge James Shumate failed to properly instruct the jury about what the state had to prove. That may sound like a minor technicality, but it means the court doesn't believe the jury held the prosecution up to the required standard of proof.
Specifically, the jury wasn't properly instructed that, in order to be guilty, Jeffs had to have the intent that a rape occur when he pushed Elissa Wall into marriage with her cousin.
The court also ruled the girl's lack of consent may not have been properly proven.
In its ruling Tuesday, the court agreed with defense attorneys who argued that jurors should not have been told to decide whether Wall's marital relations were consensual based on Jeffs' actions and his role as her religious leader. That essentially equates Jeffs with Steed -- the person who allegedly has had non-consensual sex.
Justices said prosecutors were wrong to make that leap.
"Only after there is a determination that an offense has been committed can the law impose liability on another party who 'solicited, request, commanded, encouraged or intentionally aided' in the commission of that offense," the court's opinion states.
March 17, 2009Court denies appeal in polygamist leader's case
Dec. 3, 2008Jeffs appeals conviction to Utah Supreme Court
Nov. 20, 2007Jeffs Sentenced to Five Years to Life
Sept. 25, 2007Jurors Discuss Guilty Verdict in Jeffs Trial
July 20, 2007Judge Rules Jailhouse Statements Can't Be Used Against Jeffs
July 5, 2007Utah Supreme Court Denies Request to Move Jeffs Trial
June 30, 2007Jeffs' Traffic Stop Ruled Legal
May 29, 2007Jeffs Competent to Stand Trial but Mentally Ill
Dec. 14, 2006Jeffs Ordered to Stand Trial for Charges Tied to Teen Marriage
Aug. 29, 2006Warren Jeffs Arrested in Las Vegas
May 6, 2006Jeffs Placed on FBI 10 Most Wanted List
"We're thrilled. We're overjoyed that the Supreme Court agreed with what we've said from the very beginning, that the state shows the wrong legal theory. Mr. Jeffs should never have been charged with being an accomplice to rape," said defense attorney Walter Bugden at a news conference Tuesday. "You hear a lot about the rule of law. We're governed by the rule of law. The reality is that emotion and sympathy and those things do creep into the law. This is a case where the Constitution really prevailed."
The Utah Supreme Court also ordered a new trial in the case, though prosecutors have not said if Jeffs will ever be re-tried in Utah.
Under state law, the parties in the case now have 14 days to ask for a re-hearing of the case before the Utah Supreme Court.
Prosecutors are worried that the legal principles laid down in Tuesday's court ruling might make it so difficult to win a conviction, they may decide not to try.
"We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court's ruling in the Warren Jeffs case. We disagree with it, but they are the court of final resort in the state," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "What our biggest concern is, obviously, is how do we protect young girls particularly within closed societies, polygamist sects, being forced by their leaders to marry older men and have sex with them. That's where we're left scratching our heads, is how do we provide justice to those children?"
Jeffs will remain in the Utah State Prison and be moved to the Washington County Jail pending further proceedings, but he is no longer a convicted criminal.
An extradition hearing for polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has been canceled following the Utah Supreme Court decision. The court spokeswoman said the paperwork that was filed by Texas is no longer applicable and a new hearing will not be scheduled. In an e-mail to The Associated Press last week, defense attorney Wally Bugden said Jeffs intends to oppose extradition.
Texas authorities used family records gathered during a 2008 raid on a church ranch near Eldorado to charge Jeffs with bigamy, sexual assault of a child and aggravated assault. The charges allege marriages between Jeffs and girls ages 17 and 15 in 2005.
Jeffs is head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The group, based on the Utah-Arizona state line, practices polygamy in marriages arranged by church leaders.