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Polygamist leader Jeffs faces January bigamy trial

By Ismael Istrada, CNN
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Warren Jeffs faces Texas trial
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Judge denies delay in bigamy trial of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs
  • Jeffs is accused in connection with "spiritual" marriage to girl, 12
  • The sect leader, who calls himself a prophet, was extradited from Utah
  • Texas case stems from 2009 raid at the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch

"AC360 °" updates the story of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS tonight at 10 p.m. ET. Check out the blog for a behind the scenes report.

San Angelo, Texas (CNN) -- Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, who calls himself a prophet, asked a judge on Wednesday to delay his bigamy trial so he can find a Texas lawyer.

Jeffs, 55, leads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the FLDS. The charges -- bigamy and sexual assault -- stem from an alleged spiritual marriage to a 12-year-old girl.

Jeffs' Nevada-based attorney, Richard Wright, sought to delay the trial, which is to begin January 24. But Judge Barbara Walther denied that request, saying the church leader has long known about the charges in Texas and had plenty of time to seek counsel.

Jeffs was handcuffed and his ankles were shackled as he was led into the three-story Tom Green County Court building. He was extradited last week from Utah.

Prosecutors filed the charges two years ago, after authorities raided the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, and removed more than 400 children. At the time, authorities said they feared the children were sexually abused.

Most of the children were returned to their families at the ranch, but some of the men were charged with sexual abuse.

Seven of 12 suspects connected to the ranch have been convicted of sexually assaulting children, according to the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Summons demanding that several men appear in court are taped to the white gates of the ranch, where video and audio surveillance equipment records who enters and leaves.

Warren Jeffs faces Texas trial
Polygamous leader in court
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Outside the gates, FLDS member Bill Shapley, 71, said he firmly believes that Jeffs is a prophet and is being wrongly persecuted.

"I've known him for many years," Shapley said. "I've never seen a flaw in him."

Shapely, who says he has several wives, justified marriage to underage girls; he said a girl's emotional maturity matters more than her age.

"God doesn't look at age as a criteria," he said.

The 10,000-member FLDS splintered from the Mormon church over polygamy, which the mainstream church renounced a century ago.

The FLDS openly practices polygamy at the Texas ranch and in two towns straddling the Utah-Arizona border -- Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

Critics of the FLDS say underage girls are forced into "spiritual" plural marriages with older men and are sexually abused. Sect members have denied sexual abuse.

Jeffs was convicted in Utah in a case stemming from the marriage of an underage girl to her cousin, but that conviction was overturned in 2007.

In June, a judge in Arizona dismissed similar charges against Jeffs at the request of prosecutors, who cited the "much more serious charges" in Texas. Jeffs had been charged in Arizona with four counts of being an accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor.

If convicted of the Texas charges, Jeffs would face a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison. He did not respond to CNN's questions as he left the courthouse.

He was taken to a jail 60 miles away in Reagan County, Texas, where he will await his trial.

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