As Nancy Gibbs at Time Magazine pointed out (and this blogger agrees) the trial of Warren Jeffs for accomplice to rape does set off a lot of troubling questions. There’s no doubt the man is a scumbag and deserves to go to jail for life, but the state’s decision not to prosecute the “husband” for rape in this case is difficult to justify. As columnist Lee Benson writes in the Deseret Morning News, this case may involve “a first in legal history: the actual rapist testifying with impunity while his accused ‘accomplice rapist’ sits 10 feet away facing five-to-life.” If that issue is appealed, it will be quite interesting indeed.
It’s a strange lacuna, explicable only in terms of historical experience: in every other area of human life, lying systematically to those who are especially vulnerable in order to exploit them and get them to give you money, power, sex, or whatever else, would be among the severest crimes. There are piles of volumes of reported cases where fraud and misrepresentation of much more minor varieties have led to prosecution. But if the fraud is wrapped in a blanket of “religion,” then we back off. Tell a person your sugar pill will cure cancer, and you could go to jail for a long time. Tell someone that your laying on of hands will cure cancer, and you’re untouchable (if you can convince the court you’re “sincere”). While Jeffs is unquestionably a miserable brainwashing despot, concocting—and probably believing—fairy tales of the vilest sort, the same can be said for any number of religious leaders. To prosecute them for their intellectual manipulations (what they would call “teaching” and “instructing”) wouldn’t just set a dangerous precedent—it would essentially nullify the First Amendment.
That being said, I reiterate that there is no justification for laws against polygamy with regard to freely consenting adults. The Jeffs case is about manipulation and abuse; if grown people choose plural marriage, I see no justification for barring such a choice.
An interesting report on a polygamist family here.
Update: From today's Deseret Morning News:
Washington County prosecutors charged Allen Glade Steed, who testified for the defense in the rape as an accomplice trial of Warren Jeffs, with first-degree felony rape in 5th District Court today.
Judge Eric Ludlow signed an arrest warrant for Steed and set bail at $50,000 cash only.
According to a probable cause statement filed by Washington County Sheriff Deputy Jake Schultz, the single rape charge stems from testimony Steed and his former wife, Elissa Wall, gave during Jeffs' recently completed trial.