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Representing self, Warren Jeffs sits silent rather than present case

By the CNN Wire Staff
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In polygamist sect does violence rule?
  • NEW: Jeffs told the judge that he objects to his trial continuing Thursday
  • NEW: He sits silent, with his head down, rather than give opening arguments
  • A judge had granted his request to fire his lawyers and represent himself
  • The polygamous sect leader faces charges of sexual assault and bigamy

San Angelo, Texas (CNN) -- Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs sat silent in a Texas court Thursday afternoon, declining to give an opening statement in his sexual assault trial hours after winning the right to defend himself.

Hours earlier, Jeffs delivered an impassioned 30-minute speech, saying "true justice cannot be served" if he does not act as his own attorney. Judge Barbara Walther granted the request -- but did not push back the start of opening arguments from Thursday afternoon, as the defendant had hoped.

Jeffs is charged in Texas with two counts of sexual assault on a child and one count of bigamy stemming from a 2008 raid on a ranch operated by his church, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is expected to be tried later on the bigamy charge.

When his sexual assault trial resumed Thursday afternoon, Walther again urged Jeffs -- who was sitting between two empty chairs, with a notebook and pen in front of him -- to use his defense team.

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After about 30 seconds of silence, he said, "I object to proceedings continuing" and then declined to elaborate.

Prosecutors then gave their opening arguments, telling jurors that they would hear an audiotape documenting the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. They also promised to present DNA evidence proving that Jeffs fathered a baby girl with a 14-year-old girl.

Afterward, the judge and others waited for Jeffs to give his own opening statement. Instead, for about a minute, he remained silent, with his head down, as the jurors looked back and forth between the defendant and judge.

Walther said she understood that, by Jeffs' silence, he had chosen not to give a statement. Then she gave prosecutors the go-ahead to start calling witnesses.

Jeffs' silence in the San Angelo, Texas, courtroom was a stark contrast to his comments earlier, when he argued to Walther that his attorneys "do not have the full understanding of (the) facts" and are unwilling to follow his ideas on how to present the case.

The judge gave Jeffs warnings regarding the perils of representing himself -- with the defendant insisting he understood them all. One of his ex-lawyers must be available to him at all times to answer any questions Jeffs might have, Walther ruled.

The defendant said he had been trying to serve as his own attorney all along, because he felt no counsel could adequately represent him. He insisted then that his intentions were "sincere" as he sought to "present a full defense."

"My release of counsel has been with great thought," Jeffs said. "I stand before the court presenting this need for true justice to be served."

Walther ruled to allow Jeff to exercise his constitutional right and defend himself, and granted his request to have one of his former lawyers available to him at all times.

Shortly after being dismissed, attorneys Deric Walpole and Emily Munoz Detoto told reporters they support Jeffs' decision to exercise his constitutional right by effectively firing them and representing himself.

While Detoto conceded one man facing Texas prosecutors is a "scary proposition," she insisted that Jeffs' move is "not a mere gimmick or a plot to buy more time" nor is it being done "because he thought no one else can understand his religion."

"This decision is done after much thought," Detoto said. "And it is, in fact, done freely, knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently.

Four hundred children were removed from the Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado, Texas, in the raid that led directly to this week's trial. Child protection officials said they found a "pervasive pattern" of sexual abuse on the ranch through forced marriages between underage girls and older men.

But the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state had no right to remove the children. The court also said the state lacked evidence to show that the children faced imminent danger of abuse. Most of the children were returned to their families, although some men at the ranch were charged with sexual abuse.

Jeffs' lawyers -- who then worked for him -- had lost a fight Wednesday to get Walther to throw out pivotal evidence seized during the ranch raid.

Days before the raid, police received multiple calls from a woman claiming to be Sarah Jessop Barlow, who said she was 16 and was being abused on the ranch. Police used that information to get the warrant to raid the ranch, then-defense attorney Robert Udashen said.

But later, it was learned that the call came from a Colorado woman who was not at the FLDS ranch and who had a history of making false reports of sexual abuse to police.

Udashen argued -- unsuccessfully -- that the search warrant to raid the ranch should never have been granted because it was based on information provided by what was essentially a prank call.

Walther, who is the judge who issued the initial warrant for the search of the ranch, said the reason for issuing the warrant was valid because authorities believed there was a victim who needed protection. She therefore ruled that the evidence can be used in the case.

Jeffs was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list when he was arrested five years ago during a routine 2006 traffic stop in Las Vegas, Nevada.

He was convicted in Utah of two counts of being an accomplice to rape, having been accused of using his religious influence over his followers to coerce a 14-year-old girl into marrying her 19-year-old cousin.

Jeffs was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of five years to life in Utah. But in July 2010, the Utah Supreme Court overturned his convictions, ruling that jury instructions were erroneous.

Utah is willing to retry Jeffs on the same counts, Shurtleff said Thursday.

"We're prepared to retry him, depending on what Texas does," he said. "We believed that we had an absolutely solid case."

The mainstream Mormon Church renounced polygamy more than a century ago. Jeffs' breakaway sect is believed to have about 10,000 followers.

The sect has openly practiced polygamy at the Texas ranch, as well as in two towns straddling the Utah-Arizona border: Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

Shurtleff, who has made polygamy-related child sexual abuse a focus during his 10 years in office, said his state of Utah set in motion the chain of events that landed Jeffs in Texas. The sect moved there from Utah because Jeffs knew authorities were "coming after them," Shurtleff said.

"We have been very involved," he said. "For a decade now, we've been after Warren Jeffs." It was a Utah arrest warrant that landed Jeffs on the Ten Most Wanted list, Shurtleff said.

However, he noted, prosecuting cases can be tough, partly because the sect is "very good about playing the cross-border game," but also because of the difficulty of finding witnesses willing to come forward and testify.

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

Natalie Malonis, a family law attorney who worked with four of the children seized from the Yearning For Zion ranch who ranged in age from 8 to 18, told "In Session" she had reason to believe at least some of them were abused. Two children were suspected sexual abuse victims, she said, and one child bore evidence of possible physical abuse.

She said that after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the children should be sent back, the state's child protective services could have filed additional proceedings on confirmed cases of abuse or neglect, but it did not.

"I think it came down to a political decision," Malonis said. "... There appeared to be some kind of directive to drop the cases."

She said she does not know who made that call but emphasized that she doesn't agree with it as far as the children who were suspected abuse victims. "I think it's irresponsible to send them back in that environment where there have not been real changes," she said.

The parent she had the most contact with after the raid was one of Jeffs' wives, she said. Jeffs was incarcerated at the time, Malonis said, and "she was rather independent and did not seem particularly fearful."

Of the other mothers she had contact with, Malonis said they were fine one-on-one, but seemed "a little bit more withdrawn" when male leaders were around. "It's clearly a very patriarchal society," she said, with men holding all the power.

Malonis said she would "love to see some kind of legislation that would make it a little easier for these kids to get the help they need." But, she said, Texas' home-schooling laws and constitutional privacy rights present "difficult hurdles to get over, and unfortunately, in an insular community like this, it does leave some of these children at risk, I believe."

In Session's Christi Paul, Jim Kyle, Lena Jakobsson and Beth Karas and CNN's Ashley Hayes, Gary Tuchman and Susan Chun contributed to this report.