Has Warren Jeffs turned his trial into a sermon on polygamy?

Warren Jeffs, the polygamist leader charged with sexually assaulting two underage girls, broke his silence at the trial with an hour-long invective Friday.

By , Staff writer

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    In this courtroom sketch, polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs (l.) and 51st District Court Judge Barbara Walther (r.) are shown in court during Day 2 of Jeffs's sexual-assault trial Friday in San Angelo, Texas.
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In a single dramatic hour Friday, the course of the San Angelo, Texas, trial against polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs might have changed course.

With a rambling outburst that included a malediction against the prosecutors, a defense of polygamy, and direct quotes from "the Lord God," Jeffs broke his prolonged silence in the trial, then continued to interrupt proceedings throughout the rest of the day.

The outbursts could merely be a continuation of Mr. Jeffs's apparent legal tactic: delay. But they also have also effectively turned the courtroom into a pulpit for the leader of the breakaway Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who is now representing himself in the proceedings.

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"No longer is it really a trial. He just wanted an occasion to give a sermon," Laurie Levenson, professor at the Loyola Law School, told CBS News.

Jeffs is charged with sexually assaulting two underage girls. If convicted, he could receive life in prison. He has claimed that, as the head of his church, he has the constitutional right to practice his own religion, which includes polygamy. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, repudiated polygamy more than a century ago.

Until 10:25 a.m. Friday, Mr. Jeffs had been spectator at his own trial. Before the trial had begun, he had fired his team of attorneys, saying they could not present "a pure defense."

Then, in opening statements, he said nothing as prosecutors vowed to provide evidence that he raped a 12-year-old girl and impregnated a 15 year old.

His silence had extended to the point that District Judge Barbara Walther eventually implored: "You've sat here now for an hour and not said a word," suggesting that further silence could yield "a very bad result."

Jeffs broke that silence Friday when prosecutors introduced as evidence a list of his wives and children they said lived at Jeffs's Yearning for Zion Ranch in 2004.

Jeffs stood up to object, and it was 55 minutes before that objection was over. The objection was overruled, though Judge Walther let him go on because he had not offered an opening statement. The jury was dismissed during his statement.

By the time the trial adjourned for the day at nearly 5 p.m., Jeffs had interrupted the prosecution so often that the judge had the baliff turn off his microphone.

In some ways, the interruptions fit the pattern of the trial, which has been repeatedly delayed as Jeffs retained and then abandoned attorneys – he has had seven attorneys in six months. Then, when he dismissed his attorneys before the trial, he asked for a further delay so that he could organize his defense.

"Mr. Jeffs, the court is not going to recess these proceedings to let you go to law school," the judge responded.

During the trial, Jeffs has often waited more than a minute to respond to the judge's questions.

But Friday, he was enflamed.

"You are now touching that which is sacred," Jeffs said in objecting to the prosecution's list.

"This must cease," he said.

"If we do not live these laws we are damned here and hereafter," Jeffs said, reading from a written statement. "We believe in a marriage system of eternity called celestial marriage, wherein celestial means heavenly authorized, not to be intervened by government intervention."

"I, the Lord God of heaven, call upon the court to cease this prosecution against my pure, holy way," he continued, saying God would strike the prosecutors with sickness and death.

When the statement was finished, he concluded, "Amen."

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