The XX Factor

Polygamists on Trial

This week, I am attending the trial of Raymond Merrill Jessop, a member of a polygamous Mormon sect in West Texas, accused of sexually assaulting a child. You will no doubt remember the photos from 2008 of Texas Rangers storming the compound and carting off hundreds of children, from toddlers to teenagers. Since then, the members of Yearning for Zion have allowed select photographers onto the compound to capture innocent moments – feeding babies, slicing bananas and being generally wholesome, as a way to win over public opinion. Today, the trial created another opportunity to contemplate the power of images to manufacture a truth.

The prosecution is trying to establish that Jessop had a baby with a girl who was then 16; sexual relations with a girl that age is illegal in Texas, and although she is his “wife” their marriage is not recognized in the state. As evidence, the prosecution submitted several photos of the girl and her baby.  In all – including the one on her drivers license – she looks calm, confident, extremely happy. Her maternal gestures with the baby seem utterly natural. There is one exception, and it will stay with me forever. Someone from the attorney general’s office came to take a DNA swab from the baby’s cheek. In the photo, he is on his knees, wearing white gloves, looking sternly at what seems to be a needle (it’s a Q-tip). The baby, then 4, looks terrified, and is gripping her mother’s skirt and back. The mother’s head is cut out of the shot, so you can’t tell her age.

The prosecution was using these photos to build their case but the impression they leave is exactly the opposite: Here was a woman, beaming and carefree, until a man from the state showed up at her front door, with a medical instrument. Visually, they confirm what Willie Jessop, the spokesman for the sect, keeps repeating. “There is no victim here. The state is trying to create one.”

Whether or not the girl consented is irrelevant to this case. Because of her age, the sex was illegal. And what does consent mean anyway for a girl who was completely sheltered and raised to think that being a teenage mother was the highest honor? That said, the state has had several of these girls away from the compound in their custody for months, and has not been able to convince any of them that they were coerced. She is now 21 and still a hostile witness. So at what point, for the older girls at least, does yes means yes?