Archive for Sunday, October 25, 2009

Polygamist sect focus of rare trial in Texas town

October 25, 2009

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— The first jury trial in more than a decade in the sleepy West Texas town of Eldorado involves an alleged polygamist and an accusation of sexual assault of an underage bride, a far cry from the occasional drunken driving cases that normally occupy the Schleicher County court system.

Attorneys on Monday will begin culling the largest jury pool ever called in Eldorado to try to find 14 people in a county of 2,800 who can set aside what they’ve heard about a polygamist sect whose alleged marriages involving underage girls triggered a police raid that swept more than 400 children into state custody last year.

Raymond Jessop, 38, will become the first man from the Yearning For Zion Ranch to go on trial here. He is charged with sexual assault of a child — an underage girl he allegedly married first — and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He is also charged with bigamy for allegedly marrying a second underage girl, but will be tried on that charge separately.

In all, 12 sect men have been charged with crimes ranging from failure to report child abuse to bigamy and sexual assault at the ranch, where women and girls wear braids and pastel prairie dresses. They have all denied wrongdoing.

The cases began after a woman in Colorado allegedly called a Texas domestic abuse hot line in March 2008 and pretended to be a teenage girl with a much-older husband who raped and beat her. State authorities swooped in, taking 439 children away from their sheltered lives and hundreds of boxes of documents and family photos to build their case. The Texas Rangers have acknowledged the hot line information was false, but the caller has never been charged.

Seating a 12-person jury and two alternates for Jessop’s case may be a difficult because most residents of the tiny ranching community know one another, and national and international media coverage made the April 2008 raid impossible to ignore.

“Perhaps I should ask if anyone has not heard,” state District Judge Barbara Walther said at a pretrial hearing. “It’s extremely unlikely that we’ll have anyone who will say they have not heard about this trial.”

The county sent summonses to 300 potential jurors — nearly one-sixth of the county’s registered voters in hopes of seating a jury there. If lawyers can’t get a full panel, the trial could be moved to an adjoining county. Tom Green County, home to much larger San Angelo, would be the likeliest choice.

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