'Religion on trial' as polygamist case winds up

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ST GEORGE, Utah, Sep 22 (Reuters) Attorneys for polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who is on trial as an accomplice to rape, said that ''religion was on trial'' and the state had overstepped its bounds in bringing the case.

''The State has gone crazy ... to charge Warren Jeffs with the crime of rape,'' attorney Walter Bugden said in closing arguments to the jury, which is expected to begin deliberations on the two felony counts late yesterday.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, argued that Jeffs knew when he arranged and presided over the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin against her will in 2001 that forced sex would follow.

Jeffs, 51, is the self-described ''prophet'' of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, a breakaway sect from the early Mormon church that still practices polygamy.

Jeffs is on trial on two counts of being an accomplice to rape, a charge he denies. Jeffs is not charged with polygamy but the trial has focused attention on the practice and his secretive sect, whose approximately 7,500 members live in an isolated enclave on the Utah-Arizona border.

The charges each carry a possible sentence of between five years to life in prison.

''If Warren Jeffs had not performed the wedding ceremony with (the husband), he would have never had intercourse with (the accuser),'' prosecutor Brock Belnap told the jury, which was expected to begin deliberations later yesterday.

Jeff's accuser, whose identity is being withheld given the nature of the alleged crime, left the FLDS in 2003 and has since remarried.

The husband has not been charged, but said in a tearful testimony this week he felt ''really bad'' about the end of their relationship and denied having forced her into sex.

The woman, now 21, has testified that Jeffs told her it was her religious duty to give herself to her husband, and instructed her to repent and submit to his will.

In emotional testimony during the trial the woman said she begged Jeffs not to marry her to her cousin, whom she did not like, and said she wanted to die after her husband first forced her into sex.

Attorneys for Jeffs argued that he could not have known that rape would be committed behind closed bedroom doors, and that the accuser was too vague when she told Jeffs about problems in her relationship.

Under Utah law, a person 14 or older can consent to sexual intercourse.

SOLELY RESPONSIBLE? The trial has riveted Utah, with its majority Mormon population who consider polygamy a thorn in the side of their faith. Polygamy was one of the early tenets of the Mormon religion, but was rejected in 1890 as Utah sought statehood.

The FLDS is not associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are called Mormons.

During his two-hour statement, Bugden said the FLDS has a long tradition of following church doctrines, which include arranged marriages, and suggested that Jeffs was being persecuted for the beliefs of his church.

Laying full responsibility with Warren Jeffs was unjust, Bugden argued, since the accuser's mother, step-father, and sisters were aware of her objections but did not stop the wedding.

''The idea that this is all laid out at the feet of Warren, that Warren is solely responsible, is not fair,'' he said.

Jeffs gave no specific time frame when he instructed the couple to ''go forth and multiply,'' Bugden said.

REUTERS SKB RAI0905

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