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Rare Texas bigamy trial opens in Midland

A Texas jury will decide if the former president of a polygamy-supporting branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a felon guilty of bigamy. State family law prohibits an individual from marrying multiple spouses, unless a divorce occurs in between each marriage.

The sect, called the Fundamentalist Church, is a Mormon offshoot with about 10,000 North American followers. Members believe men must have a minimum of three wives to reach a high status in heaven. The accused is believed to have accumulated 35 wives, one legal wife and 34 so-called spiritual wives.

Third-degree felony charges against the former sect president include three counts of bigamy. A conviction on every count could mean a total of 30 years in prison and a maximum fine of $30,000.

During opening arguments in Midland, prosecutors claimed to have evidence of the ex-sect president's multiple marriages. The defendant's attorney claims the extra, illegal wives the state claims his client has are not wives by law, but celestial spouses by belief. Prosecutors contend the accused bigamist and his wives cohabitated and represented themselves as legal spouses.

A seven-man, five-woman jury is expected to hear testimony from former Fundamentalist Church believers about the marriages. Jurors are also likely to see documentation found in a police raid on a sect ranch in Texas.

The raid at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in 2008 ended with accusations of fake marriages, bigamy and child sexual assault against a dozen men, including the defendant. Ten were convicted.

Two church members entered no contest pleas to bigamy charges and are serving seven- and eight-year prison sentences. The Midland case is the first bigamy trial among the dozen sect members charged with the crime. For women who have been in the sect and were forced into a marriage, hopefully the criminal trial can help them move on with their lives and get the divorces they need.

Source: Reuters, "Texas trial to focus on whether sect marriages broke bigamy law," Matthew Waller, March 22, 2012

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