The Utah Supreme Court this week reversed the conviction of Warren Jeffs for his role in the statutory rape of a fourteen-year-old girl. Viewing the facts of the case through the prism of Utah’s religious history reveals an ugly picture indeed.
Warren Jeffs helped run a small Mormon sect called the “Fundamentalist” LDS that is not a part of Utah’s dominant Mormon establishment, the LDS. Elissa Wall spent her entire childhood being brainwashed by this sect; recordings of Jeffs’ teachings were broadcast throughout her home on a speaker system. When Elissa was twelve, she discovered what happens to people who defy the FLDS prophet: her father’s disobedience was punished by having his family stripped from him and sent to another city, where her mother was “married” to an FLDS leader who already had several other wives.
When Elissa was fourteen, Jeffs ordered her to marry her nineteen-year-old first cousin, Allen Steed. According to the opinion, Elissa was aghast, and flatly refused to go forward with the wedding. Even her older sisters, who were already married to the reigning FLDS prophet, tried to plead her cause, but to no avail. At the time of the wedding, a devastated Elissa refused to say “I do” – but Jeffs pushed and pushed, until she finally mumbled “Okay, I do.” Jeffs then proclaimed “Now go forth and multiply and replenish the earth with good priesthood children,” at which point Elissa ran off and locked herself in the bathroom.
When Elissa resisted her husband’s sexual advances over the following weeks, Jeffs gravely informed her that she had to “repent” and be “submissive” – she “needed to go home and give [her]self to [Steed], who was [her] priesthood head and husband, mind, body, and soul and obey without any question.” Allen proceeded to rape Elissa repeatedly over the next two years.
Jeffs was charged as an accomplice to rape, which is defined as any sexual intercourse where the victim “expresses lack of consent through words or conduct,” or where the victim is younger than eighteen and a perpetrator who is more than three years older “entices or coerces the victim to submit.” It makes no difference whether the parties are married – though that’s irrelevant here, because no marriage license was ever issued. The accomplice liability statute is equally blunt: “Every person … who solicits, requests, commands, encourages, or intentionally aids another person to engage in conduct which constitutes an offense shall be criminally liable as a party for such conduct.”
I have now read the court’s opinion several times, and I must confess that I simply can’t follow the logic. Maybe you can. It seems to say that Jeffs lacked the “mental state” to cause a nineteen-year-old to have sex with a fourteen-year-old, even though that’s exactly what he ordered them to do, over the girl’s most strenuous objections. My purpose here is not to debate the legal reasoning, but to paint the religious background that I believe contributed to a bizarre result.
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