For the past two weeks, I’ve been camped out in a west Texas courtroom watching the trial of fundamentalist Mormon polygamist Raymond Merril Jessop unfold. Sentencing begins today, and Jessop could face up to 20 years in prison for impregnating his underage “celestial” wife in 2004. The victim, 16 at the time of the sexual assault, never took the stand, and all the evidence in the case seemed to indicate that she was Jessop’s willing bride. But what does that even mean in an environment where girls are conditioned from birth to believe that marrying an older, powerful man is the highest honor?
In the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, girls are taught that being a plural wife and mother is the only way to reach the highest rung of heaven. In this atmosphere, getting married at 14 or 15 becomes the next logical step in a girl’s life. They are into placed in marriages-“sealed for time and all eternity”-whenever the sect’s prophet deems them worthy, regardless of their age, according to the testimony of former FLDS member Rebecca Musser. Once married, girls must show perfect obedience to their husbands, who are viewed as their only connection to God.
Raymond Jessop, the son of the ranch’s leader Merril Jessop, is a man with considerable clout within the church, making him a desirable prospective husband. Now 38, Jessop has one legal wife, eight spiritual wives, and a sizable brood of 22 children and stepchildren. (And it’s worth noting that four of his wives were teenagers when he married them.) Things get more complicated when considering that the victim in the case was spiritually married at 14 to Jessop’s brother Ernest in Utah. A year later, FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs excommunicated Ernest Jessop and reassigned his three wives to Raymond.
This victim’s personal photo album, which the prosecutor used to prove that she lived with Jessop, spans both marriages but does not even take note of her husband swap. In the photos, she looks like a happy young girl as she interacts with her sister wives’ young children and helps out with the chores. It almost could be any teenager’s album but for the prairie dresses. In a later picture, she beams in a light blue dress as she clutches her own tow-headed toddler, looking every bit the devoted young mother. It is easy to imagine the defense returning to these images during sentencing, using them to suggest the state overreached and is now tearing up a happy family.
Others in the sect are convinced the state of Texas has had it in for them since their arrival in 2003, when the fundamentalist Mormons bought up a parcel of land twice the size of Central Park on the outskirts of Eldorado. Once Texas legislators discovered this, they voted to raise the state’s legal marriage age from 14 to 16 and tweaked the bigamy statute. Willie Jessop, the church’s folksy, baby-faced spokesman, saw these targeted changes as evidence of persecution. “Why would the legislature change the law to specifically target us?” he asked during the trial. “The government decided they didn’t like me but I’m not a criminal-so they decide to change the law so I am a criminal.” However, the FLDS formally renounced underage marriages a year after the raid at the YFZ ranch , perhaps in an attempt to ward off further scrutiny.
Photograph of two girls in Hildale, Utah, one location of Warren Jeff’s sect of polygamist Mormons, by George Frey/Getty Images.