The Utah Supreme Court has reversed Warren Steed Jeffs’ two convictions on charges of rape as an accomplice and ordered a new trial, saying that instructions given to jurors were erroneous.
Jeffs, the “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life after he was convicted in September 2007. He was accused of using his religious influence over his followers to coerce a 14-year-old girl into marrying her 19-year-old cousin.
“We regret the effect our opinion today may have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain,” the court said. “However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case.”
In Jeffs’ trial, Elissa Wall testified that she repeatedly told him at the time that she did not want to be married and was uncomfortable with sexual advances from her husband, Allen Steed. She said Jeffs advised her to pray and submit to her husband, learn to love him and bear his children, or risk losing her “eternal salvation.”
Wall was 21 at the time of Jeffs’ conviction in 2007. Her attorneys made her name public at the end of the trial, with her consent. She is married to someone else and has left the FLDS.
The first count of rape as an accomplice against Jeffs was alleged to have occurred shortly after Wall and Steed were married, when the two first had sex, the Utah Supreme Court opinion said. The second was alleged to have occurred after Jeffs refused to “release” Wall from her marriage and told her to “give herself to [Steed] … mind, body and soul.”
Prosecutors relied on three separate portions of the law defining the circumstances under which sex is non-consensual, the opinion said. Under those portions, the victim must express a lack of consent through words or conduct, the victim must be younger than 18 years, and “the actor” must be in a position of special trust in relation to the victim.
“Jeffs argues that the instruction erroneously focused the jury on Jeffs’ actions and position of special trust, rather than on Steed’s, for the purpose of determining whether Wall consented,” the opinion said.
The justices agreed, saying the jurors should have been asked to consider whether Steed was in a position of special trust and whether Steed lured or induced Wall into having sex.
“The state interprets the term ‘actor’ to mean the ‘defendant,’ ” the opinion said. “We conclude that the state’s interpretation is erroneous.”
“We’re thrilled,” said Jeffs’ defense attorney, Wally Bugden. “We’re overjoyed. We’re ecstatic that the Supreme Court agreed with us. … The state just had the wrong legal theory.”
Jeffs is “an unpopular religious figure in our state,” Bugden said, and the media have “had a field day portraying him as an evil, horrible, pernicious individual.” The court, he said, was able to put that aside and base its decision on the evidence and legal theories, not on emotion, and determine that the erroneous instructions led jurors to “an erroneous result.”
The defense has always maintained that marrying someone, encouraging them to make their marriage work and “be fruitful and multiply … that is not the same thing as saying to a husband, ‘I’m encouraging you to rape your wife,’ ” Bugden said.