SALT LAKE CITY — Not long after polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs — charged with sexually assaulting two underage girls he took in "spiritual marriages" — was found guilty by a Texas jury, Utahns with ties to Jeffs were buzzing about the verdict.
"I'm delighted" Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Thursday, noting that it's been 10 years since Utah filed its warrant in a separate case against Jeffs. "I'm extremely pleased justice has finally been served."
Jeffs, 55, was found guilty of sexual abuse of a child and aggravated sexual abuse of a child following a dramatic trial in which the 55-year-old leader of the Fundamentalist LDS Church fired his attorneys and chose to represent himself — a move Shurtleff said didn't surprise him.
"I've gotten to know Warren Jeffs from so many people, and I think he truly believes he's above all of us mere mortals," Shurtleff said. "He believes he's a special person, that nobody could do the job he could do, and obviously that was his defense: 'I'm a prophet, I'm right, you can't touch me.'"
That said, Shurtleff said he would have preferred that Jeffs have a defense team, though he believes state District Judge Barbara Walther and the Texas prosecutors did a great job with the case.
"Any prosecutor would prefer that there was good defense counsel, but the law allows a person to represent themselves," he said. "The judge had no choice but to let him do it, but she did a great job preserving the record and reminding him he wasn't doing any good."
Shurtleff said the evidence was "so overwhelming" that he thinks Jeffs would have been convicted regardless. His primary hope, now, is that members of the FLDS Church, who hold Jeffs up as a prophet, are told the truth about their leader.
"I don't believe (Jeffs) will find himself out of a prison cell for the rest of his life," Shurtleff said. "The question now is how to get those words to his followers."
Elissa Wall, who as a 14-year-old was forced into a "spiritual marriage" with her cousin, Allen Glade Steed, said she felt "relief" upon hearing the news. Jeffs was convicted of rape as an accomplice for overseeing the marriage between Wall and Steed, only to have the conviction overturned by the Utah Supreme Court.
"This day has been a long, hard road," she said Thursday. "It has been a long time coming for me. I never really wanted the fight, I never really wanted the conflict that has gone on to get here, but the miracle that has happened today and shined on us all is amazing."
Wall praised Texas for the work it did on the case, saying she had great respect for the state, citing the "grace, the wisdom and the eloquence in which they have encountered all the drama in the trials with Warren."
She said the conviction will hopefully "free the shackles that are on (the FLDS) people." But she warned that while the case is important, the work must continue to prevent further abuse.
"The reality that we have to face is that it's taken a lot of time, a lot of effort to get where we are today," Wall said. "It's going to take educating the people. We are going to have to continue this fight."
Wall's attorney, Roger Hoole, said he he wasn't surprised by the verdict and didn't believe if Jeffs had kept his defense team the result would have been different.
"A result of Jeffs representing himself is people have been able to see what's going on in his mind," Hoole said.
Willie Jessop, who, until recently acted as a spokesman for the polygamous sect, said he was not sorry to hear the verdict, only that "(Jeffs) did what he did."
Jessop has been kicked out of the sect.
"I thought it was interesting that Mr. Jeffs was pleading for more time, mercy ... all the stuff he surely denied to everyone else," Jessop said.
Those of the FLDS faith believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Jeffs was charged after sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, which he took as brides in what his church calls "spiritual marriages."
Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men were charged with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy. So far, all seven who have been prosecuted have been convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.
When he is sentenced following a penalty phase that began immediately after the jury trial, Jeffs could face as many as 99 years in prison.