Arizona Polygamy Trials to Commence Despite Lack of Witnesses
By Jennifer Dobner
Associated Press, carried in Las Vegas Sun
June 30, 2006
Salt Lake City (AP) - The first of eight trials alleging sexual misconduct with minors by men from a polygamist community on the Utah-Arizona border will begin next week, despite the inability of prosecutors to locate some witnesses and alleged victims.
In a news release issued Friday, Mohave County, Ariz., Attorney Matthew Smith said a jury trial for Kelly Fischer will begin Wednesday in a Kingman district court and is expected to last two days.
Fischer, 38, is charged with one count each of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor for his alleged "spiritual marriage" with a 16-year-old girl that occurred between October 2000 and March 2001. Prosecutors have constructed the time frame for the marriage from birth certificates of the girl and her first child.
The charges are class 6 felonies, punishable by up to two years per count in an Arizona state prison.
Fischer is one of eight men from Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, facing the same set of allegations.
All are believed to be members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religious sect that believes plural marriage is the key to eternal salvation. Most of the church's 10,000 members make their home in the border towns, where for nearly 100 years they have lived an insular life, shunning contact with outsiders.
Smith acknowledges that his office has had difficulty locating witnesses and securing alleged victims willing to provide testimony in all eight cases.
"There is also a strong possibility that even the few witnesses that have been subpoenaed will fail to show up for these cases," Smith said. "Therefore there is a lot uncertainty about these initial cases."
Search warrants executed on four defendants' homes in May sought DNA samples from the men and their families as a means of establishing paternity and proving the existence of sexual relationships.
But no DNA samples were obtained in Fischer's case, defense attorney Bruce Griffen said Thursday. Nor do prosecutors have witnesses or a cooperative alleged victim in Fischer's case.
"They only thing they have that we know of is birth certificates," said Griffen, who describes himself as "a classic hired gun," with no connections to the FLDS community.
Griffen said the state may be able to prove Fischer or other defendants may have had a child with a "spouse" who was under the age of 18, but he said he'll raise questions about the definitions of spouse.
"The state still has to prove conception and sexual intercourse occurred in Mohave County and in Arizona and frankly, I don't know how you do that," Griffen said.
Prosecutors have varying degrees of evidence, investigatory work and witness/alleged victim cooperation in the eight cases, said Griffen said. In at least two, there are witnesses or alleged victims willing to testify and, in others, there is DNA and other evidence.
But the outcome of Fischer's trial may still have some bearing on how the seven to follow will play out, Griffen said.
Polygamy is banned in the state constitutions of Arizona and Utah and also illegal under Utah's bigamy statute. Over the past five years, prosecutors in both states have increased the pressure on the FLDS and other polygamist groups after several high profile bigamy and child abuse cases sent some men to jail.
Scrutiny of FLDS practices has also intensified since June 2005 when Arizona filed sexual misconduct and conspiracy charges against church leader Warren Jeffs, who is a fugitive on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. He is also facing felony charges in Utah, accused of arranging marriages between underage girls and older men.
But officials in both states have been careful to say they are targeting sexual abuses and other crimes against women and children, not the religious practice of polygamy.
Griffen says his clients feel differently.
"I assure you that they feel that everything that happens is an assault on their way of life," he said.
Trials for the seven other defendants - Dale Evans Barlow, 48; Donald R. Barlow, 49; Terry D. Barlow, 24; Randolph J. Barlow, 33; David R. Bateman, 49, Rodney H. Holm, 39; and Vergel Bryce Jessop, 46 - begin July 11 and continue through September.
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