Mr. Jeffs, known as the “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), was convicted in September 2007 of two counts of rape and has been in prison since.
The Utah justices held that instructions given to the jurors were erroneous and ordered a new trial. Jeffs was originally found guilty of being an accomplice to rape for using his religious influence to coerce a minor into marrying her 19-year-old cousin.
The justices said that the jury's deliberation should have been focused on whether Jeffs' intent in performing the "spiritual marriage" was for rape to occur, not on whether the action itself led to nonconsensual sex.
“In particular, the court held that Mr. Jeffs had to have the intent to aid the rape that was committed,” says Paul Cassell, professor of criminal law at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. “That will be the issue on which the new trial will focus.”
Analysts say the court’s opinion was narrow in the sense that they did not hold that Jeffs is innocent but rather simply that the jury was improperly instructed on the charges.
“We regret the effect our opinion might have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain,” wrote Justice Jill Parrish for the court. “However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case, in order to protect the constitutional principles on which our legal system is based. We must guarantee justice, not just for this defendant, but for all who may be accused of a crime and subjected to the State’s power to deprive them of life, liberty, or property hereafter.”
Mr. Cassell and others laud the court’s expression of regret.
“It’s to the Utah Supreme Court’s credit that they are taking into account the concerns of crime victims even though in this particular case, those concerns could not have precedence,” says Cassell, a former federal judge.
“This girl, who was 14 at the time, is going to have to relive that experience and testify in front of a jury again,” says Cassell.
The case has been remanded to trial court, which means it will take place as soon as the trial judge can arrange it. Estimates range from three to six months, assuming the state does not contest the Utah Supreme Court's decision.
"Potentially the bigger issue is what this means for future accomplice-to-rape trials in Utah," says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Utah’s high court has said that the prosecutor had to prove that Jeffs encouraged the victim’s husband to commit rape. Proving that is no easy task."