Objections slow trial of polygamist sect ex-bishop


Prosecutors had hoped to rest their case Wednesday against Fredrick Merril Jessop. The 75-year-old is charged with performing an illegal wedding in 2006 at a West Texas ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

But defense attorney Rae Leifeste rained objections on prosecution witnesses, including Rebecca Musser, an ex-member of FLDS and a former wife of its late leader Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs' father. Prosecutors called her as an expert to authenticate church records, the San Angelo Standard-Times reported.

Leifeste challenged Musser's credentials, noting that she acknowledged watching records being made "a few times, and now she claims to be an expert." State District Judge Barbara Walther allowed the testimony.

In her testimony, Musser said she had been trained to believe in the sanctity of record keeping and that what is "recorded on earth is recorded in heaven" and essential to salvation.

She was expected to return to the stand Thursday morning.

Leifeste objected earlier to University of Texas law professor John Sampson, who was being called as a family law expert. Leifeste argued that only the judge could instruct jurors on the law, and when Sampson began speaking about "informal marriage," Leifeste accused prosecutors of starting a case on bigamy.

"We've not been trying to back-door bigamy," said Matthew Ottoway with the Texas Attorney General's Office, which is prosecuting the case.

Leifeste also said he was concerned that Sampson would give jurors his opinion that Jessop was guilty. Walther allowed the testimony, but cautioned Sampson to avoid the "magic word" guilty.

Leifeste also renewed his argument that a "marriage ceremony" as defined by Texas law is not necessarily a "ceremonial marriage."

The trial is expected to last into next week. If convicted, Jessop could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined $10,000.

Jeffs' Utah-based church practices polygamy in arranged marriages that sometimes involve underage girls. The faith believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

Authorities raided the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado in 2008, after a telephone call alleging the abuse of an underage bride by her husband was placed to a domestic violence hotline. More than 400 children were temporarily removed from the ranch and placed in state protective custody.

Although the call was later investigated as a hoax, prosecutors have used family and church records seized in the raid to bring charges against 12 sect members, all men, including Jessop and Jeffs.

In August, Jeffs was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two of his child brides. Prosecutors said Jeffs had a total of two dozen underage wives.

Prosecutors say one of Jessop's daughters was allegedly married to Jeffs at age 12. The girl was the only child from the West Texas ranch to remain in foster care after the courts ordered that the children removed during the raid must be returned to their parents.

Concerns over the difficulty of choosing an unbiased jury in sparsely populated Schleicher County, where the ranch is located, prompted the judge to move Jessop's trial about 70 miles north to Coke County.

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