Warren Jeffs' sexual assault trial got off to a frenzied start, largely because the polygamist sect leader insisted on representing himself, then sat mute and seemingly oblivious to everything going on in court around him.
Without any objections from Jeffs, who declined to make an opening statement, prosecutors moved at breakneck speed Thursday on the trial's first day, calling five witnesses. They also told jurors they have an audio recording of the 55-year-old defendant raping a 12-year-old girl and DNA evidence showing he impregnated a 15-year-old.
Jeffs is the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy is the key to exaltation in heaven. Followers see him as a prophet who can speak for God on Earth.
His surreal, silent-treatment defense began after Jeffs abruptly dismissed his high-powered defense team Thursday and asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Walther that he be allowed to represent himself and to have more time to prepare his case. He addressed the court for 25 minutes, launching into long and confusing diatribes about how his attorneys could not present a "pure defense."
The judge was wary, saying, "you have assembled one of the most impressive legal teams this court has ever seen and perhaps ever seen in the state of Texas ... I urge you not to follow this course of action."
Jeffs had been down this road before. He fired his attorney 20 days before jury selection began Monday, only to retain a new lawyer who pleaded unsuccessfully for more time. He has burned through no fewer than seven attorneys since December, and Walther said Thursday that "your request for additional time can only be considered as an attempt to further delay these proceedings and manipulate this court."
"Mr. Jeffs, the court is not going to recess these proceedings to let you go to law school," she said.
Walther allowed him to represent himself but insisted on the trial moving forward. Jeffs responded, "I feel this is an injustice being performed" and said letting the case continue meant not allowing "true justice to be served, which is the purpose of the court of law in a nation that professes true justice be served."
Jeffs is charged with two counts of sexual assault of a child and could face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
The charges against him stem from a massive police raid in April 2008 at Yearning For Zion, a sect compound about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs' trial is taking place. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the compound appeared on TV airwaves across the country wearing their traditional, frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century.
Authorities moved in after receiving an anonymous call to an abuse shelter, alleging that girls on the compound were being forced into polygamist marriages. The call turned out to be a hoax, and the children were returned to their families.
But police saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant _ prompting the charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men. All seven sect members who have been prosecuted so far were convicted of crimes including sexual assault and bigamy, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.
Eric Nichols, a special prosecutor representing the Texas attorney general's office, said in his opening statement that jurors would hear a recording of Jeffs having sex in August 2006 with a girl who recently turned 12. He said DNA evidence would show Jeffs fathered a child after having sex in January 2005 with a girl who was then 15. Both alleged rapes occurred at the Yearning for Zion compound.
Nichols said both girls entered into "spiritual" marriages with Jeffs. Neither is expected to testify against him.
When it was time for his opening statement, Jeffs stayed seated and said nothing. He then didn't take notes or even pay attention as the prosecution called five witnesses _ police officials and investigators who described obtaining DNA evidence from Jeffs and the alleged victims.
Also testifying was Nevada highway patrolman Eddie Dutchover, who described a highway traffic stop in August 2006 when Jeffs was arrested. Inside the red Cadillac Escalade he was riding in, investigators found an external hard drive which is believed to contain the audio recording Nichols has promised to play for the jury.