Polygamist Courtroom Circus

The Warren Jeffs child sex trial began with a shock: The polygamist will represent himself—with help from God. Cult insiders tell Carol McKinley about holy visions—and suicide hints.

07.29.11 5:27 AM ET

Just hours before opening statements yesterday in the sex assault trial of self-proclaimed polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, the cult leader shocked a West Texas courtroom with an announcement: he had fired his lawyers. “I desire to represent myself,” he told the judge in his trademark hypnotic voice. “They are not comprehending who they are dealing with.” Those who know Jeffs tell The Daily Beast that what he was trying to say is that his attorneys don’t recognize he talks to God. 

Since he was extradited to Texas from Utah this past December, Jeffs has had a myriad of lawyers at his side poring over millions of pages of evidence against him. Yesterday’s casualty, lead attorney Deric Walpole, lasted a week. The attorney before Walpole was on the case just six months, and the one before that was hired and fired on the same day. “Those attorneys weren’t willing to let God run Warren’s defense,” explains private detective Sam Brower, “the prosecution is going to walk all over him.”

Brower is a private detective who has been investigating Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, for years and has written a book due out this September about his experiences with them. “Warren is definitely crazy. But he’s lucid too.”

Indeed, Jeffs can look the part when he wants to. At six-foot-four and bespectacled, with his expensive suits always pressed, he could pass for a lawyer. But the charges could put him away for life. Jeffs, 55, is on trial for two counts of sexual assault of a child in connection with his celestial marriages to a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old. The Texas Attorney General’s office is using Jeffs’ own revelations, audiotapes, wedding pictures, and DNA to make its case. That evidence was pulled from the FLDS’ Yearning for Zion ranch during a 2008 raid and from Jeffs’ Escalade the night he was arrested. Already, seven FLDS men have been convicted of either bigamy, arranging child-bride marriages or sex assault of a child. Four other men are yet to be tried, including Jeffs.

The San Angelo, Texas courtroom was half-full for Jeffs’ legal debut Thursday, but when called to give opening statements, he tucked his chin and had nothing to say. Instead, the fireworks came from the prosecutor, who promised the jury he’ll play a tape of Jeffs’ raping the 12-year-old and will show the defendant made the 15-year-old pregnant. Jeffs’ followers tell a different story. One of them assured me, “Uncle Warren is the purest man on earth. All the world needs to know is that he is one of the cleanest people you’ll ever meet.”   

None of Jeffs’ followers was in court Thursday—the FLDS does not recognize the American legal system. But they seem almost giddy with relief that his trial has started, according to some inside the sect’s compound. To them, this is just a formality of Gentile laws. At a Texas-style steak dinner Wednesday night, they were smiling with the news “the jail bars will soon be open.” “I’m living life as it is and I’m not worrying,” one of his followers tells me, while requesting anonymity because he’s not allowed to talk with the press. “He will get out. And it won’t be done by us. It’ll be because of God.”

The FLDS knows this because their prophet told them so. Every Sunday, Jeffs’ speaks to them from a pay phone in his jail cell. “Last week, he told them he’s not going to trial at all,” says Brower. “And more alarming, he’s prophesying that he’ll be ‘translated.’” Translated, according to Brower, means being changed from mortal to immortal. “Everybody’s wondering if he’s going to kill himself.”

Observers are hoping Jeffs doesn’t hijack this Texas courtroom the same way Brian David Mitchell, the man convicted of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, did in his federal trial. There are similarities. Mitchell is also a fundamentalist Mormon who had his eye on the then-14-year-old Smart to be the first of a harem of wives. Mitchell was often taken out of the courtroom for abruptly breaking out into hymns. 

Jeffs’ defense may be unorthodox as well. Brower says Jeffs has been known to stop in mid-sentence and cock his head as if he’s listening to God, and then dictate what he has just been “told.”

“He’s been doing it for years with his sermons, and I’ve seen him do it during his hearings, but this judge won’t put up with it.” U.S. District Judge Barbara Walther denied Jeffs’ request for a delay to give himself time to prepare for his own trial Thursday. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defendant successfully represent themselves,” instructed Walther. “It’s not as easy as it looks on TV. You’re on your own.” Walther has had an FLDS target on her back—attorneys for the sect have tried unsuccessfully to remove her several times.

Today, a jury of 10 women and two men will assemble, wondering how Jeffs will defend himself. Among witnesses for the defense: an expert on the Mormon religion.

Subpoenaed by the prosecution? Seventy-eight of Jeffs’ “wives.” Observers say they won’t show up because some of them live out of state in secret locations. Though the addresses shown for the women on court documents is the cult’s main compound, many of Jeffs’ women are scattered all over the West living secluded lives in places he refers to as “houses of hiding.”

The trial is expected to last a month, and things just got a lot more interesting.