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Score one for the good guys: Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet and leader of the polygamous Mormon sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), has been convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl.
Jeffs is notorious for his iron control over parishioners; he’s reportedly banned nearly all types of celebration in FLDS communities, performed hundreds of “celestial marriages” between underage girls and married men, exiled boys and young men from the community for minor infractions and convinced most of his followers not to talk to authorities, even when his fugitive status prevented him from persuading them in person. In 2001, he pressed 14-year-old Elissa Wall into marrying her 19-year-old cousin against her will; the prosecution successfully argued that the ceremonial instruction that husband and wife “multiply and replenish the earth” served as a coded OK for rape. Jeffs was convicted of a second count of child rape as an accomplice for telling the bride to submit to her husband “mind, body and soul” when she appealed to him for guidance because she didn’t like the way her husband was touching her. Jeffs eventually dissolved the marriage, after discovering a picture of Wall with another man. (Given the FLDS’s draconian morality-police tactics, it’s unclear whether “found a picture” means that Jeffs discovered evidence of an extramarital relationship — Jeffs also apparently tells boys they can impregnate women just by looking at them — but Wall eventually married the man in question.) Wall is now 21, has left the sect, and testified in the case against Jeffs.
Jeffs’ attorney, Tara Isaacson, made much of the fact that Wall’s family didn’t prevent the marriage between Wall and her cousin. Wall’s sisters testified that the threat of being exiled from the community kept the family from blocking the ceremony. (Wall testified that she acquiesced to the marriage “as much as someone can agree against their will.”) One sister, who is no longer an FLDS member, said:
“I gave her an option. To me it was she could just leave. But then to not get married, she would have to give up our mother, brothers and sisters. I told her you don’t have to do it, but that doesn’t mean there are really other options.”
Isaacson also emphasized the fact that Wall had sometimes consented to sex with her husband, as though saying yes once invalidates any number of times she may have said no (or changes the fact that she was 14 years old and unable to meaningfully consent). During cross-examination, Isaacson asked,
“Isn’t it true that at times you acted like sexual relations with [your husband] were fine with you? Didn’t you sugar it up, use sex, and if you wanted something you would agree to it?”
The Deseret News reports that “the woman admitted she agreed to participate in sex with her husband about three months following her marriage in order to ‘get money and other things, to go see my mother or sisters.’” Trading marital rape for the opportunity to sell sex to your husband — sounds like a peachy state of marital affairs to me.
Isaacson also hit on the fact that Doe didn’t refer to the sexual experiences she’d had with her husband as rape until after her marriage ended, suggesting that she’s exploiting the situation for monetary gain. (Wall has filed a civil suit against the financial arm of the FLDS, seeking $1 million and property in Colorado and Utah.) All I can say is I hope Wall gets a fat settlement, both because she’s obviously been through hell and because a painful payout might discourage the FLDS from abusing other young people this way.
Some questions about the case remain. Like: It’s clear that Jeffs was culpable in Wall’s nightmarish marriage situation. But if he’s guilty of rape as an accomplice, what about the more direct perpetrator? Wall’s former husband, Allen Steed, says he never forced Wall to have sex, and he has not been charged with a crime. I’m not arguing that he should be — he may have been as much a pawn in this as Wall was — but some spectators point to the discrepancy as evidence that Jeffs should have been acquitted. The New York Times reports another oddity: The jury announced on Monday that they’d hit a wall in their deliberations, “but earlier today, for reasons the court did not explain, an alternate juror was substituted for one of the original panel members. The unanimous verdict came a few hours later.” What gives? I’m hoping more information emerges now that a verdict has been reached. Meanwhile, Jeffs awaits sentencing, and may face further charges for performing underage or incestuous marriages in Arizona.
After the verdict was announced, Utah’s attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, implied that isolated sects may be getting more attention of this kind: “Today’s verdict is just the beginning of a long journey to seek justice for all. Everyone should now know that no one is above the law, religion is not an excuse for abuse and every victim has a right to be heard. Let this verdict be a warning.” Considering the clash between faith and fact currently playing out across the country, Shurtleff’s words couldn’t be more welcome.
Update, Sept. 26: The Associated Press reports that attorneys in the case have charged Wall’s ex-husband (and cousin), Allen Steed, with rape.
Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.More Page Rockwell.
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