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Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs fires attorneys in sexual assault case as trial begins
SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) ' Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs dismissed his legal team on Thursday at the start of his sexual assault trial and told the court he wants to represent himself.
Opening arguments were to have begun Thursday. Jeffs is charged with sexually assaulting two girls ' charges that stemmed from a 2008 raid on a remote Texas compound that belonged to his sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If convicted, he could go to prison for life.
Jeffs, 55, addressed the court for about 25 minutes on Thursday, telling District Judge Barbara Walther that he thought hard before deciding he'd be better off representing himself. He asked for time to find another attorney who could help him file legal briefs.
Walther asked Jeffs a few questions before adjourning to consider his request.
Jeffs has had seven attorneys appear on his behalf in recent months, leading to a six-month delay to the start of his trial. All of Jeffs' lawyers have been tight-lipped about their approach to the case. The charges against Jeffs stem from a 2008 police raid on the sect's remote compound in Texas.
However, as jury selection began this week, Jeffs' latest attorney, Deric Walpole, gave the first public hint of Jeffs' planned defense, saying "my client's right to practice religion as he sees fit is in jeopardy."
Jeffs's sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. It has more than 10,000 members nationwide, and his high-powered defense team is being financed by an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.
The massive 2008 raid at Yearning For Zion, a compound about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs' trial is taking place, featured the FBI and police SWAT teams. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the ranch appeared on airwaves across the country wearing their traditional, frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century.
Authorities moved in after receiving an anonymous call to an abuse shelter, alleging that girls were being forced into polygamist marriages. Based on that report, Walther signed the search warrant authorizing the raid.
The call turned out to be a hoax, made by a woman in Colorado, and the children were returned to their families. But once on the compound, police saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant ' prompting the charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men.
All seven sect members who have been prosecuted so far were convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years ' despite other FLDS members not testifying against them.
Defense attorneys had argued unsuccessfully that police had indications the call was phony, but hid them from Walther to ensure the search was authorized.
Walther found the defense had not raised enough doubts about the veracity of the search warrant, and denied its suppression motion.