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Is Convicted Bigamist Tom Green Suffering Discrimination?

Aired May 21, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: After being found guilty on four counts of bigamy and one count of failure to support his children, self- proclaimed Mormon fundamentalist Tom Green lashes out.


TOM GREEN, Convicted Bigamist: I think it was a cheap trick. It was -- I think it's probably what Mr. Leavitt had to do to have any chance of winning at all. He had to -- he had to appeal to the prurient interests. He had to appeal to prejudice and passion. He couldn't win it on the merits.


COSSACK: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: religion, the law and the conviction of an with five wives and twenty-nine children.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

In Utah's first high-profile polygamy case in 50 years, well, the verdict came down Friday against a man who has five wives and has fathered twenty-nine children. Fifty-two-year-old Tom Green remains free on bail until his sentencing at the end of June. Now, Green was found guilty in a Provo courtroom on four counts of bigamy and one count of not supporting his offspring. The convictions could give Green 25 years in prison. And he also faces charges of first-degree felony rape of a 13-year-old girl who he subsequently married. A trial date has not been set for that yet.

So joining us today from Salt Lake City, Michael Vigh, a reporter for the "Salt Lake Tribune." Also from Salt Lake, Civil Rights attorney Brian Barnard. And also from Salt Lake, law professor Lynn Wardle. And here in Washington, Dione Nadane (ph), Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women, and Amy Bradley. In the back, Marina Chase and Aaron Rainer (ph).

Let's go right to you, Tom (sic). You've been covering this case for your newspaper. Sum up for me what happened to Tom Green. Tell me a little bit about what he was charged with, what he was convicted of, and tell me about the trial. MICHAEL VIGH, "SALT LAKE TRIBUNE": Well, Tom Green, as you know, was changed -- or was convicted of four counts of bigamy, Roger, and one count of criminal non-support for failing to provide for his children. The trial was, as you might expect, kind of a circus. The national and the international media had a -- had an interest in the case and were really -- you know, were there, and they really -- and Tom's the kind of guy who -- he likes -- he likes the media attention. And it was a -- it was quite a circus-like trial.

COSSACK: Now, Michael, some would say that -- that Tom brought this upon himself, in a way, that if there was ever anybody who kind of went out and thumbed his nose at the authorities, Tom Green was the one that did that. Tell us about that.

VIGH: Well, I -- I think Juab County attorney David Leavitt said it best. He said, basically, he had to -- he had to prosecute this guy because he went to dozens of national, international shows, like Jerry Springer and other shows, and basically paraded his lifestyle and bragged about his wives and children. And Mr. Leavitt said he basically had to prosecute the guy, just as he would a drug dealer who went on TV and talked about committing crimes.

COSSACK: Michael, what was Green's defense? Did he have one?

VIGH: He basically said that the -- he wasn't married in the eyes of the state, that he was -- he was married religiously, that he was married in religious ceremonies but not civilly married. And Mr. Leavitt successfully went to a judge and has his -- had one of his marriages deemed a civil marriage and thus he -- thus he cohabitated with the other four women, and that's how the charges came about.

COSSACK: Now, mere cohabitation -- is that against the law, even if you're married, in Utah, I mean, living with another woman?

VIGH: Fornication is against the law. Cohabitation is illegal if you're married to another woman. So you know, under the bigamy statutes...

COSSACK: OK. Now, what made this bigamy? I mean, what then was the legal point that made it -- first of all, what's the difference between bigamy and polygamy?

VIGH: Well, there is no -- there's no actual statute for polygamy, but there is a bigamy statute. And as you know, in most -- in most instances, bigamy is reserved for fraud. If a -- if a con artist marries one person and then has a separate identity and marries another person, then, you know, that would be bigamy. But there is no statute for polygamy except that polygamy is outlawed in the Utah constitution, and that was as a condition of statehood back in 1896. Utah was granted statehood if they agreed to ban polygamy in the constitution.

COSSACK: Michael, they have common-law marriage in the state of Utah. That is, as I understand it, that if you live with a woman for a certain number of years, you automatically become husband and wife, even though you haven't gone through a ceremony. Is that a correct definition of that?

VIGH: That's -- that's correct.

COSSACK: Is -- did that play any part in Tom Green's trial?

VIGH: It did. But again, you know, Mr. Leavitt had to go to a judge and basically, you know, have the judge rule that he was married to one of his wives and cohabitating with the four others because Tom basically would marry a woman and then divorce a woman, and so in his eyes, he didn't believe that he was married to any of these women. As he put it, he was legally single in the eyes of the state.

COSSACK: What about this rape charge, Michael?

VIGH: He's accused of a 1986 child rape with his 13 -- with a 13-year-old girl, who later became his plural wife and is now his head plural wife. No trial date has been set in that case. There's been several evidentiary hearings. the judge has ruled that if Tom can show that -- that the rape was reported in the '80s, then the statute of limitations would have expired and they could throw that case out because this is a 15-year-old case.

COSSACK: What about the age of consent in Utah? What is the age of consent for marriage?

VIGH: The age of consent is 16. It used to be 14 if you were -- if you had your -- if you had parental consent, but that law was changed to 16 a couple of years ago in the state legislature.

COSSACK: All right, let me talk with Lynn Wardle for a minute.

Professor Wardle, this is an unusual situation, certainly. There are estimates that there are some 30,000 to 50,000 families, if you will, living in polygamous relationships in the state of Utah. Why Tom Green?

LYNN WARDLE, LAW PROFESSOR: Well, I think Michael correctly identified the reason that Tom Green was prosecuted. And as you correctly noted, this doesn't happen very often. But when someone flaunts their lifestyle that is in defiance of the law and essentially is advertising through media outlets and -- I think -- I think Tom Green was probably seeking celebrity status, probably wanted to be the rock star of polygamy. And he certainly has the media status. He has his 15 minutes of fame. And I think that's why he was prosecuted.

Plus, there's pretty serious evidence, at least evidence that convinced a jury, that this man has committed criminal non-support, essentially what is called being a deadbeat dad. And so I think that's why he -- he was singled out for prosecution, plus the -- the sex with a minor, which is a pattern that apparently isn't uncommon both -- well, in polygamy generally.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. Tom Green's case is thought to have been the first case of polygamy prosecuted in nearly 50 years. Why did they bring it now? And if they narrowed it down because Tom Green went on television, isn't that selective prosecution? Let's find out about that when we come back.


Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols's preliminary hearing, set to begin today, was postponed because of FBI documents that had not been turned over to defense attorneys. The hearing, which could start as early as May 29, will determine if there is sufficient evidence to hold Nichols for trial on state murder charges.




LINDA GREEN, WIFE OF TOM GREEN: No other state in the United States would even care if anybody was being a bigamist but Utah. And the only reason they're doing this is because we embarrassed them because they want to hide their heritage and their history.

TOM GREEN: If you go out and have sex for fun in Utah, it's a class B misdemeanor. But if you have -- if you have a child with a woman without a marriage license in Utah for a religious reason, for the religious motive of building a patriarchal family, then you're a felon.


COSSACK: Pluralist marriages were outlawed in Utah when it joined the union in 1896. However, reports indicate as many as 30,000 polygamists live within the state of Utah today.

Brian, let's talk a little bit about a question that I thought of at the end of the last section having to do with whether or not Tom Green was selectively prosecuted and whether or not any of his civil rights are being violated. Your thoughts?

BRIAN BARNARD, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: Yes, Tom Green is guilty of -- or has suffered selective prosecution, but there's nothing illegal about selective prosecution. Happens all the time. Sometimes the IRS goes after celebrities because they want to make a point. In the state of Utah, the state of Utah went after Tom Green because they wanted to make a point. So there's nothing illegal about a selective prosecution like that.

Now, as to whether or not his civil rights are being violated -- to a certain extent, yes, they are. The reason they're being violated is because if he practices polygamy for a religious reason, then that's probably protected by the United States Constitution.

Child abuse should be against the law. Cheating the welfare system should be against the law. Statutory rape should be against the law. But polygamy, if practiced for a religious purpose, with consenting adults, that shouldn't be against the law.

COSSACK: Even though the Mormon church has outlawed polygamy as part of its religious practices?

BARNARD: Well, the fact that the Mormon church outlawed it doesn't change the civil law. The civil law also says it's against the law to practice polygamy, but again, if somebody practices that for religious purposes...

COSSACK: Independent of the Mormon church.

BARNARD: Independent of the Mormon church. Yes, polygamy has a history in Utah because of the Mormon influence, because of the Mormons settling this state. But the practice of polygamy -- well, polygamy's practiced by other religions besides these fundamentalists. There are other religions throughout the world that practice polygamy. It's legal in those countries. The United States, if they acknowledged the right to practice one's religion, should allow people to practice polygamy.

The difference, though, is that minors shouldn't be involved in it, people under age, at age 13, shouldn't be forced into polygamy. If someone's an adult, a consent adult, and they go into the situation with their eyes open and they do it for religious reasons, that should not be against the law.

COSSACK: Lynn, Brian makes an interesting argument. He says that, you know, putting aside the Mormon religion, the notion is, is that as -- is that if I had a religion that I believed strongly in and started and I had followers and that I, as part of my religion, wanted to be a polygamist and have many wives, that it violates my civil rights to -- not to be allowed to do so. It violates my freedom of religion. Good argument?

WARDLE: Well, I think that certainly is a strong argument, stronger that a -- and Brian Barnard expresses it more coherently than I've heard it expressed in the Green trial. But there's another interest that has to be identified. Society has an interest in the institution of marriage. Marriage is really important not just in our society but in all societies. It really is the foundation of society, of government, of relations. People learn those values of living together and association that are critical for social cohesion in a family environment. And so the state has a pretty important interest.

And the question is whether any people who decide that their relationship is important enough that they should be treated as a marriage ought to be able to have it treated as a marriage. For instance, two men or two women or a commune of multiple people having a sort of a corporate or communal sexual relationship. What about a brother and a sister, a father and a daughter? If the daughter is now 16, can the father marry the daughter? Can the brother marry the sister?

We have strong reason to discourage some relationships and -- and to criminalize some relationships that we think are harmful to the individuals and to society.

COSSACK: All right... WARDLE: Perhaps most importantly, marriage is a very privileged institution. We're not just talking about tolerating a relationship. Marriage isn't just tolerating...

COSSACK: Well, what we're talking about is the -- is the government defining the word "marriage."

And Patricia Ireland, help me out on this one a little bit. Should the government be involved in defining the word "marriage"?

PATRICIA IRELAND, NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN: Well, I want to pick up perhaps where Brian was going, and that is there are certain privileges that come in tax benefits, inheritance laws, property relationships. It's got legal and civil overtones.

COSSACK: And that's -- but those are the government...


COSSACK: ... defining...

IRELAND: Exactly.

COSSACK: ... or encouraging certain types of marriage.

IRELAND: Exactly.

COSSACK: The government says, "If you do it this way"...


COSSACK: ... "then we'll give you certain" -- you don't have to pay as much money.

IRELAND: Correct.

COSSACK: You get deductions. It's -- and the government makes a policy decision.

IRELAND: Right. And I mean, I think that there are arguments against the traditional view of marriage, where historically women were the property of their husbands. The reason you took your husband's name was that you -- for all legal purposes, the woman who got married disappeared. The husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband. That was the common law maxim.

The problem with most of the cases I've seen in Utah, and as I understand it generally, is that there is an almost inextricable link with the failure to pay child support -- a lot of these women do receive public assistance -- with child abuse and...

COSSACK: But is that a fault...

IRELAND: ... incest and...

IRELAND: But is that a fault of polygamy or is that a fault of the individual who doesn't take care of responsibilities?

IRELAND: Well, I think there are...

COSSACK: I mean, why it any different between a single marriage, a monogamous marriage...


COSSACK: ... of someone who doesn't pay child support or someone who doesn't do...

IRELAND: I don't think there is a difference...

COSSACK: ... or abuses...

IRELAND: ... in failure to pay child support or in statutory rape, child abuse, incest. Those are policy decisions that we've made as a country. What I'm saying is that I have ye to hear of -- and perhaps I've just missed some...

COSSACK: Well...

IRELAND: ... and perhaps we'll hear from Elizabeth Joseph -- of a relationship ...

COSSACK: We're going to hear...

IRELAND: ... where you don't find...

COSSACK: ... from Elizabeth Joseph...

IRELAND: ... that kind of...

COSSACK: ... in just a second. Let me interrupt you. Let me take a break so we can hear from Elizabeth Joseph.

Is polygamy good for the modern woman? We're going to talk to Elizabeth Joseph, a feminist, a lawyer and a women who shares her husband with three other women when we come back.

Stay with us.


What punishment did a Texas judge impose on 21 convicted sex offenders in Corpus Christi?

Answer coming up.




What punishment did a Texas judge impose on 21 convicted sex offenders in Corpus Christi?

The placement of signs in their front yards declaring, "Danger! Registered sex offender lives here."


COSSACK: OK, joining us on the phone is Elizabeth Joseph, an attorney and a self-proclaimed feminist from Utah who shares her husband with two other wives.

Elizabeth, thank you for joining us. I want to read a quote that you -- that you gave that I found just fascinating, and I want you to talk about it. You said, "Polygamy is an empowering lifestyle for women. It provides me the environment and opportunity to maximize my female potential without all the trade-offs and compromises that attend monogamy. The women in my family are friends. You don't share two decades of experiences and a man without those friendships becoming very special."

Most people would think that the kinds of relationship that you're describing, Elizabeth, is -- is something that would not include friendships. Describe it. Tell us about it.

ELIZABETH JOSEPH, POLYGAMIST: Well, two decades, yes. I think women generally are very affiliative and enjoy their friends, all women in all circumstances, for the most part. And when you have a man at the center of that, it's that much more entertaining.

COSSACK: But doesn't that -- you know, far be it from me to be describing feminism, and please excuse me, all of you. But doesn't that sort of stand in the face of what feminism is all about? Isn't there a sort of an unequality in that -- by definition in that situation?

JOSEPH: Well, equality is nothing I aspire to. I want to be a woman, and I don't want to be a man. I don't want to be equal to a man. I want to be something different, probably something better.

COSSACK: Elizabeth, by definition, then, would polygamy include the definition that you just set for yourself, someone -- a person who does not -- does not aspire, then, to be as equal -- on equal terms with a man?

JOSEPH: No. It's just -- it's a futile quest. Our society is a huge commentary on that futility.

COSSACK: Patricia Ireland, could therefore -- I mean, this -- this is not necessarily what you agree with, and -- I'll ask you to tell me why instead of speaking for you, too.

IRELAND: Well, of course, what goes through my head as Elizabeth is speaking is, "Well, why is it that we don't find polyandry? Why don't we find lots of men married to one woman?" One could argue that the women do a lot of work in the relationship and in the households and that that's part of the reason. But I do think that part of feminism was to empower women to make their own decisions in their own relationships.

At the same time, we are in a culture -- and Tom Green described the relationship he was trying to build as a patriarchal relationship. By definition, the man is the head of the family. The man is historically the head and master, who could make all the decisions. I don't find that particular empowering. At least, I wouldn't for myself.

COSSACK: Elizabeth, would your argument be therefore that what -- what the empowerment that you get, as a woman in this situation, is the ability to choose the kind of relationship you wish?

JOSEPH: Yes, that's -- that's a huge part of it, that you have a man at your dinner table, in your bed, in your house at your invitation. To me, that's pretty feminism-oriented. But yes, indeed. That would...

COSSACK: Why is it, then -- to sort of pick up on what Patricia said, why is it, then, that you don't think that there is the reverse of these situations? That is, many men married to one woman.

JOSEPH: I would applaud it, and I would champion it. But I don't think it's the nature of women. I know that my nature is monogamous, and I suspect women are that way. And for whatever reason -- you could probably tell me -- men aren't.

COSSACK: Do you believe that it's a violation of your civil rights, of Tom Green's civil rights to not be able to be involved in a polygamous relationship...

JOSEPH: Well...

COSSACK: Constitutionally.

JOSEPH: It hasn't hindered me for 27 years. I don't know what Mr. Green's problem...

COSSACK: But are you -- but you are at risk, are you not, for prosecution in the state of Utah?

JOSEPH: Well, I do know what Mr. Green's problem is -- the Olympics. And the Mormon church cannot handle this dirty little secret and the Olympics at the same time. Mr. Leavitt, the prosecutor, is only alive because his grandma was a plural wife, as his brother, the governor, acknowledged. So you know, you tell me.

COSSACK: What about coming on this show? I mean, I can tell you that we have viewers in Utah. Do you feel at risk by -- by publicizing what your relationship is...

JOSEPH: Well...

COSSACK: ... by coming on this show?

JOSEPH: The county attorney here, like Mr. Leavitt, is a young pup fresh out of law school. And yeah, he might think it's interesting to come after me. And I say "Go for it, buddy."

COSSACK: Patricia, in terms of Elizabeth's definition of feminism, does that square at all with the traditional notions of feminism?

IRELAND: Well, there are several aspects, perhaps. An I think first and foremost, the right to choose your own relationships, your own way of being in the world, your destiny, your fate. At the same time, perhaps, a close relationship with other women, where you are raising children in an extended family, which for generations in most of our families -- we had cousins and aunts and people around us. We're so mobile now that most of us don't. So I can imagine a lot of advantages.

I have heard Elizabeth quoted -- I don't know if it's true or not -- saying that if you find a good man, and there are so few men -- such a hard time find in a good man, it's nice to share. But that may have been misattributed to her. You know, from my perspective, I think that equality in a -- in an equal partnership in a relationship is a stronger base than -- whether it's Mormon or Southern Baptist or the Promise Keepers saying a woman should submit and submit graciously to her husband.

COSSACK: I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today. I'm not even going to go to whether or not a good man is hard to find.

Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching.

Tom Green, convicted of bigamy in this case, will be a case on "TALKBACK LIVE" today. Send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista, and tune in at 3:00 PM Eastern time. I'm going to be watching.

And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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