SAN ANGELO, Texas (Reuters) – Ex-bishop Fredrick Merril Jessop was found guilty on Monday of marrying a 12-year-old girl to polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life term for sexually assaulting two child brides.
Jeffs, 55, leader of a breakaway Mormon sect, was convicted in August of sexually assaulting that girl and a 15-year-old he had taken as so-called “spiritual” wives. Prosecutors said the girls were among two dozen underage brides Jeffs had acquired over the last decade.
A rural West Texas jury found Jessop, 75, guilty of performing an illegal marriage ceremony, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Jessop, a former bishop with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was excommunicated by Jeffs in January.
Jeffs’ polygamist sect, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America, has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church and is accused of promoting marriages between older men and girls.
FLDS men enter into so-called “celestial marriages” with multiple wives in a process known as “sealing.” The FLDS, which broke off from the mainstream Mormon church in the early 20th Century, believes polygamy is necessary to advance to the highest level of heaven.
The jury, which handed down its guilty verdict against Jessop after deliberating for an hour and 20 minutes, entered the sentencing phase on Monday afternoon but had not finished deliberations by the end of the day.
State prosecutors and the defense spent much of the six-day trial arguing over the legal definition of marriage under Texas law. Jessop’s attorney, Rae Leifeste, argued that the ceremony Jessop performed could not be considered a marriage ceremony under Texas law.
In closing statements before the jury went to deliberation, lead prosecutor Angela Goodwin told the jury that the ceremony was covered under Texas law and not to let the defense “confuse you.”
Jessop is one of 11 FLDS men the state of Texas has sought to prosecute after Texas Rangers unearthed a trove of documents from a vault during an April 2008 raid on the sect’s West Texas ranch near Eldorado.
Ten of the men have been prosecuted and convicted of crimes including bigamy and sexual assault of a child.
Jessop, then a bishop in the church, was in charge of running the ranch at the time of the raid. State prosecutors said the marriage ceremony that was the crux of his conviction had taken place on the ranch in 2006.
(Additional reporting by Matthew Waller; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Johnston)
(This story corrects the name of Jessop’s lawyer in paragraph 8)