Surprise, Surprise

According to CNN,

The Utah Supreme Court has reversed Warren Steed Jeffs’ two convictions on charges of rape as an accomplice and ordered a new trial, saying that instructions given to jurors were erroneous.

Jeffs, the “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life after he was convicted in September 2007. He was accused of using his religious influence over his followers to coerce a 14-year-old girl into marrying her 19-year-old cousin.

We regret the effect our opinion today may have on the victim of the underlying crime, to whom we do not wish to cause additional pain,” the court said. “However, we must ensure that the laws are applied evenly and appropriately, in this case as in every case.” […]

The first count of rape as an accomplice against Jeffs was alleged to have occurred shortly after Wall and Steed were married, when the two first had sex, the Utah Supreme Court opinion said. The second was alleged to have occurred after Jeffs refused to “release” Wall from her marriage and told her to “give herself to [Steed] … mind, body and soul.”

Prosecutors relied on three separate portions of the law defining the circumstances under which sex is non-consensual, the opinion said. Under those portions, the victim must express a lack of consent through words or conduct, the victim must be younger than 18 years, and “the actor” must be in a position of special trust in relation to the victim.

“Jeffs argues that the instruction erroneously focused the jury on Jeffs’ actions and position of special trust, rather than on Steed’s, for the purpose of determining whether Wall consented,” the opinion said.

The justices agreed, saying the jurors should have been asked to consider whether Steed was in a position of special trust and whether Steed lured or induced Wall into having sex.

So it comes down to the interpretation that the court made of the word “actor”.

“The state interprets the term ‘actor’ to mean the ‘defendant,’ ” the opinion said. “We conclude that the state’s interpretation is erroneous.”

“We’re thrilled,” said Jeffs’ defense attorney, Wally Bugden. “We’re overjoyed. We’re ecstatic that the Supreme Court agreed with us. … The state just had the wrong legal theory.”

Jeffs is “an unpopular religious figure in our state,” Bugden said, and the media have “had a field day portraying him as an evil, horrible, pernicious individual.” The court, he said, was able to put that aside and base its decision on the evidence and legal theories, not on emotion, and determine that the erroneous instructions led jurors to “an erroneous result.”

The defense has always maintained that marrying someone, encouraging them to make their marriage work and “be fruitful and multiply … that is not the same thing as saying to a husband, ‘I’m encouraging you to rape your wife,’ ” Bugden said. […]

Jeffs had been awaiting trial in Arizona on four charges of being an accomplice to sexual conduct with a minor. But last month, a judge dismissed those charges. Matt Smith, the Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor, had asked the court to throw out the charges, citing “much more serious charges” against Jeffs in Texas and the desire of his alleged victims that he “face these more serious charges as soon as possible.”

Jeffs was indicted in Texas in 2008 on a felony charge of sexual assault of a child. An indictment accuses Jeffs of assaulting a child “younger than 17 years of age and not legally married to the defendant” in January 2005. If convicted on the Texas charges, Jeffs could face a maximum penalty of five to 99 years or life in prison and a fine of $10,000.

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