By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting his two child brides, has asked for a new trial, claiming his religious rights were violated.
The 55-year-old spiritual leader of a breakaway Mormon sect made the request in a handwritten note from a Texas hospital where he was being treated after falling ill while fasting in jail, the Texas Attorney General's office said on Wednesday.
Jeffs, who heads the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and represented himself at trial, was convicted last month on charges he sexually assaulted two girls he wed as spiritual brides when they were 12 and 14.
Jeffs, who had argued in loud outbursts that the Texas court was trampling on his religious rights by trying the case, said in his appeal motion that the evidence used to convict him had also been seized improperly.
That evidence included audio recordings of him having sex with the younger girl and instructing underage girls on how to sexually satisfy him. Jeffs was also asking for another hearing on the evidence issue after the trial judge ruled against him.
Jeffs' polygamist sect, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America, has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church and is accused of promoting marriages between older men and girls.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the trial was fair and the sentence would be upheld.
"After carefully considering the evidence, a Texas jury found Warren Jeffs guilty and sentenced him to prison for the rest of his life," Abbott told Reuters in a statement.
"I think the jury's decision was right and will withstand any legal challenge."
Much of the evidence used against Jeffs was seized in a dramatic 2008 raid on the sect's Yearning for Zion ranch in rural west Texas, when authorities carted out boxes of evidence and temporarily removed hundreds of children.
Some legal experts have said evidence gathered in the raid could be disallowed because it was based on a false report.
Jeffs never disputed the charges against him during trial, only repeatedly argued that he had the right to his religious beliefs, which center on the conviction that plural marriages are the only way to Heaven.
Jeffs filed his appeal last week from the prison hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he was in stable condition and being treated for the effects of a fast he began after beginning his sentence.
A Texas appeals court ruled last week in a separate appeal filed by another convicted member of Jeffs' church that the evidence had been properly seized and presented, and the court rejected the same arguments Jeffs raised in that portion of his motion.
Texas Rangers raided the YFZ ranch after a San Angelo domestic violence hotline received a call from a person claiming to be the "child bride" of a 49-year-old FLDS leader.
The call was apparently a false report made by a woman in Colorado, and Jeffs and the other FLDS member had argued the search was illegal and the evidence seized should not be used.
The judge in Jeffs' case made the same ruling during his trial.
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)