Trial of sect leader shines rare spotlight on bigamy

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2012 11:23 AM
Trial of sect leader shines rare spotlight on bigamy

By Matthew Waller

MIDLAND, Texas (Reuters) - The former leader of a polygamist sect charged with marrying two women on the same day will go on trial in Texas on Wednesday, putting a spotlight on the rarely prosecuted crime of bigamy.

Wendell Loy Nielsen, 71, a former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is charged with three counts of bigamy.

Patrick Metze, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the Texas Tech University School of Law, said he did not know of a bigamy case going to trial in recent memory.

"It isn't a crime committed and prosecuted very often," said George Dix, a criminal law professor with the University of Texas.

Most bigamy cases involve people from other countries married in the United States who said they did not know that their marriage to a person in another country was still valid, or where a divorce did not go through before another marriage took place.

Nielsen's situation is also unusual because there are questions whether the marriages performed by the sect he once headed were valid under Texas law.

Prosecutors charge Nielsen married two women on the same day in February 2006.

The sect Nielsen headed had practiced polygamy ever since breaking away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - also known as the Mormon church - in the late 1800s.

Nielsen was one of 12 men indicted for crimes including child sexual assault, bigamy and performing an illegal marriage after an April 2008 law enforcement raid on the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas to check on accusations of sexual assault.

Ten of the men have been convicted, including church leader Warren Jeffs, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl through ritualized rape after "spiritual marriages."

Jeffs is in prison in protective custody in Palestine, Texas, for life plus 20 years. But he still exerts influence in the sect through his brothers and sends out prophetic messages to public officials and has taken out as advertisements in newspapers across the country.

Nielsen was the president of the sect's corporation in Utah until he stepped down so Jeffs, who was still the supreme leader, could assume the presidency early in 2011.

This will be the first bigamy case of the 12 men to go to trial. Two have pleaded no contest to bigamy charges before and received seven and eight years in prison.

Bigamy is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

Nielsen's trial in Midland, Texas, was expected to last two weeks, according to court staff.

(Editing by Greg McCune and Daniel Trotta)