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Polygamist leader to represent self in sex assault case

Warren Jeffs looks toward the jury in his trial in St. George Utah
Warren Jeffs looks toward the jury in his trial in St. George Utah

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs threw his child sexual assault trial into disarray on Thursday when he fired his defense lawyers and demanded the right to represent himself, which the judge then granted.

"It's not as easy as it looks on TV, Mr. Jeffs," State District Judge Barbara Walther told him. "You're on your own."

Jeffs, the leader of a breakaway Mormon sect, is charged with child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault in connection with his "spiritual marriages" to a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old girl at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in remote west Texas.

Jeffs, 55, is considered the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church and is accused of promoting marriages between older men and girls.

The sect, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America, also teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven, he must have at least three wives.

Jeffs, who founded the ranch in 2003 as an outpost for his church after decades on the Utah-Arizona border, refused to enter a plea on his own behalf on Thursday, so the court recorded a "not guilty" plea and recessed until opening arguments were scheduled later in the day.

"My counsel doesn't have the full understanding of the facts and are unable to assist in my defense," Jeffs told the court in a slow, halting voice as he explained his move to fire his counsel.

"I have trained my defense, but they were unable to do what I said. I am presenting the need for true justice to be presented, and for the truth to come out."

LAWYERS TO STAY ON STANDBY

Jeffs has fired myriad attorneys in what prosecutors say is an attempt to delay the trial on charges that could send him to prison for life.

Judge Walther instructed the attorneys to remain on standby although they do not have to appear in court as his advisers. The judge had earlier instructed previously fired attorneys to appear in court in order to proceed with the trial.

Assistant Texas Attorney General Eric Nichols, who is prosecuting Jeffs, did not object to Jeffs' request for self-representation. But he wanted the self-proclaimed FLDS "prophet" to be apprised of the potential hazards of the move.

There were no signs of any sect members or supporters of Jeffs in the half-full courtroom.

Before being fired, defense attorneys had worked to exclude evidence seized when Jeffs was arrested in Nevada in 2007, as well as items seized from the ranch in a highly publicized raid by Texas Rangers in 2008.

Defense lawyers said those items shouldn't be used. They include a list of adult male members of the sect detailing their numerous wives and a photograph of a grinning Jeffs kissing one of his brides.

They argued against that evidence because the raid was prompted by a false report to a San Angelo domestic violence hotline by a woman claiming to be a 16-year-old child bride. The raid resulted in hundreds of children being temporarily removed from the compound.

The call actually came from a Colorado woman prosecutors say had a history of false domestic violence outcries.

(Editing by Karen Brooks, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston)

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