SAN ANGELO, Texas -- The first hint of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs' defense strategy came Monday when his attorney said his right to freedom of religion was trampled by Texas prosecutors, who allege he sexually assaulted two underage girls after manipulating them into "spiritual marriages."
Jury selection began Monday in the case of the 55-year-old ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church's 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.
About 280 potential jurors showed up, but about 60 were released because of scheduling conflicts and other routine issues. Those remaining filled out a form with 17 questions. It did not mention Jeffs' church but asked potential jurors to list TV shows they regularly watch and whether they or a close relative had been the victim of a sexual crime.
The proceedings got started only after District Judge Barbara Walther rejected a request for a three-month delay from Jeffs' latest attorney, Deric Walpole.
He said he had spent 18 to 22 hours a day on the case since being hired last week but it wasn't enough time to prepare. He said it would be a "great injustice" to start the trial Monday.
"I've done everything I can to get ready," Mr. Walpole said. "I'm not asking for a lot given the gravity of this case."
Jeffs, backed by a church land trust worth more than $110 million, has had seven attorneys appear on his behalf in recent months. Prosecutors say his frequent switching of counsel is a delay tactic. Stating his case, Mr. Walpole gave a public hint of Jeffs' planned defense, saying, "My client's right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy."
Tall and lanky with thick glasses, Jeffs has made numerous appearances in Judge Walther's court wearing prison coveralls and chains. He was unshackled and was wearing a black suit Monday and spent part of the hearing for a delay with his head bowed and his eyes mostly closed -- as if he were praying. Jeffs was more attentive during the subsequent jury selection process, frequently whispering to his attorneys.
Jeffs is accused of sexually assaulting two girls, one younger than 17 and one younger than 14. He faces a separate trial for bigamy in October.
The charges stem from an April, 2008, police raid on a church compound in West Texas. Authorities who believed girls were being forced into polygamous marriages removed more than 400 children living at the compound.
The original call to a Texas domestic abuse hot line that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax. Most of the children seized from the compound have since been returned to their families, but the evidence collected proved enough to charge Jeffs and 11 other church men with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy.