Polygamist FLDS Leader Warren Jeffs Sentenced to Life in Prison

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Warren Jeffs, leader of a polygamist sect of the FLDS, a fringe Mormon group, was sentenced to 119 years in prison for sexual assault.

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Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has been sentenced to life in prison by a Texas jury. Jeffs was given 99 years on one charge, and 20 on a second charge after less than an hour of deliberation:

Prosecutors said Jeffs, the 55-year-old spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had "played a sick game of child molestation under the guise of religious ceremony."

"Justice has arrived for Warren Steed Jeffs," said Assistant Texas Attorney General Eric Nichols, who prosecuted the case. "We expect that he will spend the rest of his life in prison."

Jeffs was convicted last week of child sexual assault over his relationships with two girls he "married" when they were 12 and 14 years old at his sect's Texas ranch. He fathered a child with the older girl.

If you haven't read it yet, pick up a copy of Under the Banner of Heaven. It's a tough read, not because it isn't engrossing, but because it's such a disturbing portrait of religious extremism, violence, and the FLDS. Warren Jeffs looms large throughout. It's a page turner, even though there are moments that will make you sick to your stomach or break your heart, or both.

The real twist to this story: Jeffs just regained legal control of the FLDS last week. No word yet on whether the life sentence will change that. Meanwhile, polygamist groups are busy distancing themselves from Jeffs, who made plenty of enemies on his journey to power.

William Jessop, an FLDS elder who has acted as the unofficial spokesman for the group's Texas ranch in the past, said the trial showed the government should have acted sooner to rescue women and children who were being abused by Jeffs.

"There was evidence that was seized way back in 2006 and 2007 of this abuse," he said, referring to some recordings of abuse. "That's a lot of years, and all we can do is thank God that he was stopped."

A polygamist coalition in Utah and Arizona said the life sentence was justified. Jeffs will serve his prison terms consecutively and would not be eligible for parole until 2070.

"I feel like justice has been done. I don't feel like he should be out in society. Even among his own group. I think he has a tendency to be a pedophile. And with that weakness, who is to say he won't repeat these crimes," said Anne Wilde, a spokeswoman for polygamist advocacy group Principle Voices.

Polygamy is a tricky issue. I won't get too deep in the weeds on this one, but I will note that it's no surprise that abuse occurs in a system that places men above women so overtly. Child brides are one problem. Numerous other social issues can stem from polygamy, including higher crime rates. In polygamist societies there is a mismatch between the number of women and number of men available as mates, since one many may have several wives (or more). Boys are often cast out as older and more powerful men take the younger women as wives, leading to young men without girlfriends or wives or any social prospects. Too often this leads to poverty and crime.

This 2006 Reason article sheds more light on the many problems of polygamy, of which pedophilia is only one. The conviction of Warren Jeffs is good news, but the culture he came from, and helped to shape, remains very much intact without him.

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