The Salt Lake Tribune has been the place to go for news on the FLDS court battles in Texas. While most news organizations have focused on the arguments before the Texas Supreme Court Friday regarding an appellate court's decision finding the removal of 468 children improper, the Tribune has the goods on how the knives are coming out in this chaotic legal battle, at the heart of which are religious beliefs and values. Reporter Brooke Adams demonstrates a tremendous ability to tell the complex story from the collapse of the state's case due to a lack of hard evidence, to the introduction of The Photo, which is posted above, by state officials. The Photo shows imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs giving a not-so-friendly kiss to a 12-year-old girl he allegedly married nearly two years ago:
In San Angelo, the state went to battle with the Jeffs photos.
The photos were entered as evidence in a 14-day custody hearing for an infant born May 12 to Louisa and Dan Jessop. The girl in the photo is Dan Jessop's sister. Attorneys for the state contend the photo is evidence that the couple lived in a household that supported underage marriage.
The photographs have left at least some attorneys for FLDS parents and children reeling. Lawyers interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday said they found the photos "disturbing."
But attorneys were unsettled, too, by the state's use of them now rather than at the original hearing in mid-April.
Under Texas law there has to be some evidence that a child is in immediate danger. A Texas court of appeals said there was none to support the removal of all 468 children. The state's officials appealed that order and released this photo but will not say where they got it or exactly how it supports their case for removing all of the group's children.
Some have speculated that it was intended to sway the Texas Supreme Court in the state's favor. The state's highest court is reportedly reviewing the arguments this holiday weekend.
Here is a summary of the state's arguments from The New York Times:
"The record is uncontroverted that adult men engage in 'spiritual marriages' with under-age children," the state's brief said. "No age was too young to marry and they wanted to have as many babies as they could."
It said that girls as young as 13 were pregnant and that boys "were groomed to be perpetrators." The state also argued that the ranch functioned as "one big family, one large community and they have the same belief system" so that "all the children there are potential victims."
ABERNETHY: Now, Wade, polygamy is against the law. Why doesn't the state just shut the whole place down?
Mr. GOODWYN: Well, it is against the law. It's a felony in Texas. But it seems that state officials in Utah, Arizona, and now in Texas are reluctant to prosecute for polygamy. Sexual abuse of an underage teen is another issue. But there seems to be a general feeling of "live and let live" among consenting adults, because if the state wanted, I think they probably could bring charges. Those are just charges that are hard to prove in court when no one wants to testify.
There has been little news coverage of this, partly because reporters have been kept quite busy covering the many angles and court cases coming out of the raid of the FLDS compound. But this is what the case is all about. State officials disapprove of this group's morality and beliefs and are trying to prosecute the entire group on questionable grounds of child abuse. No one is contesting the state's ability to prosecute actual instances child abuse, but without evidence of abuse the state doesn't have much of a case unless the polygamy angle is pursued.
State officials' reluctance to charge this group with polygamy deserves a closer examination. The argument that the group would not testify against each other in court making the charges difficult to prove is unsustainable since state officials could simply charge every single member of the group with conspiracy to commit a felony.
Would Texas state officials be content to let groups practicing polygamy "live and let live?" Or would a felony polygamy charge justify taking children away from parents who practiced polygamy? Those who arranged underage marriages like Warren Jeffs, who could spend the rest of his life in a Utah prison for two counts of accomplice to rape, and those who have committed statutory rape, face harsh legal sanctions. But the state can do little, without pursuing the polygamy charges, to punish others outside this group of individuals.
Already state lawmakers are wondering how the state will be able to fund efforts against less high-profile cases of alleged child abuse since the total cost of the FLDS situation could exceed $30 million.
One Republican lawmaker Sen. Bob Deuell has an idea: take the FLDS group's 1,700-acre ranch, which is worth about $20.5 million.