Thursday, September 13, 2007

Get Warren Jeffs the Right Way

The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints is a scary cult, and Warren Jeffs is about as scary a cult leader as you will find. He rules over their compound in Colorado City, Arizona, with an iron hand. The FLDS control every institution in town, and drive out anyone who doesn't conform to their views, such as no short sleeves in public, or Jeffs' order that all dogs in town be killed. Like most polygynous sects, the old men drive many of the young men out of town, so the old men can have all the women.

Most people were willing to tolerate the FLDS's polygamy with adult women. What has really turned the public and the law against them are the forced marriages of young girls. Warren Jeffs' trial begins today for ordering a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin against her will. People who have fled the group say that forced marriages for young girls are common.

What's wrong with this trial is the charge. Jeffs is charged with being an accomplice to rape for ordering an underage girl to marry, and presumably have sex with, a man who was a legal adult. This charge stretches rape law beyond the plausible. The prosecutors might lose, and Jeffs would slip away. Worse, they might win. If counseling people to marry, or return to a marriage, which presumably would include sex, could be legally construed as assisting rape, then anyone offering marital advice could be liable for prosecution. Unlikely, to be sure, but liable.

It is very hard to prosecute cult leaders. They tell adults to do crazy things, but it is the other people who actually do them. Unlike, say, a gang leader, they do not threaten to beat up their subordinates, or their families, or take all their money, or other dangers that secular law can recognize. The promises and threats that a cult leader can wield are beyond the law -- and should be. If Jeffs really did commit a crime, such as raping a four-year-old boy as one man has charged, by all means throw the book at him. But don't twist the law to get him just any way.

What is more effective against cults is ridicule. Jeffs was arrested in Las Vegas in a red Escalade, with wigs, sunglasses, 15 cell phones, and more than $50,000 in cash. Not exactly the actions of God's Annointed. Definitely fails the WWJD test.


Anonymous said...

Saying that Jeffs was "counseling people to marry" is putting it rather mildly. These were not two consenting adults thinking about marriage. This was an unwilling child (should anyone be counseling a fourteen-year-old to marry?), her cousin, a statutory age difference, and a host of terrible consequences for disobedience - expulsion from the community and their families, physical abuse, etc. If these factors are not relevant in a court of law, then there is something very wrong with our justice system and its ability to protect children from harm.

Is this situation really the legal equivalent of a licensed family therapist or recognized member of the clergy doing pre-nuptial counseling with a consenting, of age couple?

Gruntled said...

I agree that what Jeffs did was vile. I don't think that the current laws protecting marriage counseling are designed to distinguish Jeffs' case from legitimate advice-giving. Such rules could be written, but that creates another problem of gray area cases that are now in the discretion of the counselor. My main point, though, is that the wrong Jeffs committed is not covered by the rape statute.