By Matthew Waller
MIDLAND, Texas (Reuters) - A jury handed a former leader of a breakaway Mormon polygamist sect a 10-year prison sentence on Friday for three counts of the rarely prosecuted crime of bigamy, though prosecutors said he had 34 wives in all.
Wendell Loy Nielsen, 71, of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints led by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs, showed little reaction when Texas District Judge Robert Moore read the sentence.
Moore did not comment on the sentence, and Nielsen was marched out of the courtroom by sheriff's deputies. He was also ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.
The same West Texas jury heard eight days of testimony and deliberated less than two hours before convicting Nielsen on Wednesday of felony bigamy, a crime that legal scholars say is rarely prosecuted in the United States.
Prosecutor Eric Nichols said Nielsen had 34 wives of his own, and officiated at or witnessed 326 unlawful marriages. Fifty of those marriages were to girls under age 18 and included 12- and 13-year-old girls.
The sect Nielsen belongs to teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven, he must have at least three wives. The Mormon church has renounced its polygamist past and condemned the sect, which has an estimated 10,000 followers in North America.
The prosecution also presented evidence that Nielsen played a part in breaking up families, did not seek medical help for an underage teenager's pregnancy complications, and hid sect leader Jeffs from police while Jeffs was on the FBI's most wanted list.
"In the culture, these marriages were not intended to be legal marriages," Nielsen's lawyer, David Botsford, said during the hearing. Nielsen may not have known the ages of the women he was marrying, he said.
Jeffs was found guilty last year of sexually assaulting two underage girls he had wed. Jeffs is in protective custody in a prison in Palestine, Texas, serving a life term plus 20 years.
But Jeffs still exerts influence through his brothers, sending out prophetic messages to public officials and taking out advertisements in newspapers.
Botsford argued that Nielsen was acting under Jeffs' direction and feared being sent to Hell if he disobeyed the man referred to by sect members as "prophet."
Nielsen is one of 12 men from the sect 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 Texas. Eleven of the men have been convicted, including Jeffs.
Nielsen was the president of the sect's corporation in Utah until he stepped down in 2011 so Jeffs could assume the presidency while holding the title "supreme leader." Jeffs also faces a bigamy charge and has a court hearing in May.
(Editing by Andrew Stern and Cynthia Johnston)