SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs dismissed his high-powered defense team and began representing himself Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to delay the start of his sexual assault trial.
With opening statements set to begin, the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said he had spent extensive time training his lawyers, but they weren't able to present "a pure defense." He then pleaded for more time to prepare the case by himself.
Jeffs burned through seven attorneys in six months and prosecutors had complained his frequent switching of counsel was a delay tactic. But special prosecutor Eric Nichols, representing the Texas attorney general's office, said he'd be willing to stop the trial until Monday if Jeffs represented himself.
State District Judge Barbara Walther allowed Jeffs to become his own lawyer but refused to delay the case — even as Jeffs sat alone at the defense table, rising every few minutes to mumble about how not delaying it would be a grave injustice.
The judge barreled onward, hearing a pretrial motion Jeffs' lawyers had previously filed seeking to suppress evidence from when Jeffs was arrested after a 2006 traffic stop in Nevada. "Is the defense ready to proceed?" she asked.
Jeffs sat and stared into space, with his lawyers sitting behind him in the public gallery. Finally, attorney Emily Munoz Detoto said "That's you, Mr. Jeffs. And stand up when you address the judge!"
Her former client said he wasn't ready to proceed and it took less than three minutes for Walther to deny the motion. Walther then swore in a jury which will hear opening statements this afternoon.
Jeffs is accused of sexually assaulting two underage girls and, if convicted, could face life in prison. Followers see Jeffs as God's spokesman on Earth — his sect is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in Heaven.
The surreal day in court began with Jeffs spending 25 minutes addressing Walther, speaking in long and complicated sentences that were frequently interrupted by awkward pauses when he would stare intently at the floor.
"The condition of my present defense is such that I cannot use them," he said of his attorneys. "They, not having all needed understanding for my defense, which wants for representation by one who knows and understands the facts of these truths."
Walther asked when he had arrived at the decision, and Jeffs launched into another long-winded answer, assuring her that neither he nor his attorneys have "been idle."
"This has been a continued labor on my part, seeing counsel often have ideas different from the needs at hand," he said, adding that his defense team never "had a true understanding of the facts."
Walther ordered all of Jeffs' attorneys to remain on as side counsel, but held firm on no further delays.
"You cannot fire your lawyers in an attempt to get a continuance," she said. "We're going forward today, sir. Can you understand that?"
Jeffs said not allowing him more time to prepare wouldn't allow "true justice to be served, which is the purpose of the court of law in a nation that professes true justice be served."
Walther didn't grant Jeffs motion to represent himself without first urging him to reconsider. She also said he would get no special favors.
"You have assembled one of the most impressive legal teams this court has ever seen and perhaps ever seen in the state of Texas," the judge said. She later added, "I urge you not to follow this course of action."
Now that Jeffs is representing himself, what he will argue in his own defense is unclear. One of his former attorneys, Deric Walpole, said Monday he would argue his client's constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion had been trampled by police. But Walpole also hinted Jeffs wouldn't be testify or otherwise address the jury during the case.
Jeffs' sect has more than 10,000 members nationwide, and his defense had been financed by an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.
The charges against him stem from a massive police raid in April 2008 at Yearning For Zion, a compound about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs' trial is taking place, More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the compound appeared on airwaves across the country wearing their traditional, frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century.
Authorities moved in after receiving an anonymous call to an abuse shelter, alleging that girls on the compound were being forced into polygamist marriages. The call turned out to be a hoax, made by a woman in Colorado, and the children were returned to their families. But police saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant — prompting the charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men.
All seven sect members who have been prosecuted so far were convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.