Opening statements are expected Thursday in the trial of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is accused of marrying and sexually assaulting two teenage girls.
One of the girls was under the age of 17, and the other was younger than 14, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors say the marriages were invalid and that resulting sexual contact was child molestation. If convicted, Mr. Jeffs could be sentenced to life in prison.
He also faces trial in October for bigamy.
Defense lawyers have suggested they may argue that Jeffs’s actions are consistent with his sincerely held religious beliefs.
The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, but laws against bigamy and protecting children have been upheld against constitutional challenges.
The current trial in the west Texas town of San Angelo is expected to last a month. The prosecution stems from evidence collected during an April 2008 law-enforcement raid on the group’s Yearning for Zion compound near Eldorado, Texas.
More than 400 children were taken into custody and questioned after what turned out to be a hoax phone call to a domestic-abuse shelter. Authorities also seized a large number of documents, including marriage and birth records.
Jeffs is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – a 10,000-member spinoff group that is unassociated with the Mormon Church. Jeffs is the son of former FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs, who died in 2002. He claims to be a descendant of Jesus and Joseph Smith.
The group’s teachings include the belief that every devout male member of the FLDS should have at least three wives. Elder men in the group are expected to have more. It is unclear how many wives Jeffs claims.
The approaching trial has sparked charges that the FLDS is involved in systematic child abuse through arranged marriages of child brides. There have also been allegations that numbers of teenage men have been expelled from the group’s compounds to avoid competition with more-senior male members of the sect for teenage girls.
To date, seven other members of the FLDS have stood trial and been convicted of sexual assault and bigamy.
Prosecutors used DNA tests in earlier cases to help establish ages and family connections.
Jeffs was tried and convicted in 2007 in Utah as an accomplice to rape for his alleged involvement in underage arranged marriages. He was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison. The Utah Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2010.