The XX Factor

Warren Jeffs Trial: The Wit and Wisdom of Judge Barbara Walther

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

After a wrenching trial, polygamist FLDS “prophet” Warren Jeffs has been sentenced to life in prison for having sex with two underage girls. He impregnated one of these wives when she was 15; the other was reportedly 12 when he recorded audio of the two of them engaging in what the FLDS terms “heavenly comfort.” During the trial, Jeffs fired his many attorneys, elected to represent himself, and alternated between the silent treatment and ranting at length about how he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs. Then, during sentencing, he decided to protest the proceedings by leaving court, prompting Judge Barbara Walther to appoint one of his stand-by council to step in. The trial would have been quite entertaining,  were it possible to overlook the heinous nature of crimes he stood accused of—and were they not merely the tip of the sickening iceberg. During the sentencing phase, a nephew and niece each alleged that he raped them while they were under 10; prosecutors also presented evidence that nearly one-third of Jeffs’ 78 wives were 16 or younger when they married him. A few of pastel-proud women in this image do look rather youthful.

One of the bright spots of the frequently sickening trial was the judge, Barbara Walther, who exhibited patience and wit even as Jeffs, surely unused to listening to an authoritative woman, acted out like a petulant child. At one point, he proclaimed that God had sent ”a crippling disease upon [Walther] which shall take her life soon.” Walter walks with a limp because of a childhood bout of polio. Early in the trial, when Jeffs fired his attorneys and then asked for a trial delay to prepare himself, Walther countered, “Mr. Jeffs, the court is not going to recess these proceedings to let you go to law school.” Later, during a fire-and-brimstone tirade that the prophet claimed came directly from “the Lord Jesus Christ,” Jeffs said, “I shall send a scourge upon the counties of prosecutorial zeal to be humbled by sickness and death,” Walther warned him not to threaten the jury. He replied, “I’m not threatening, only relaying a message,” to which the judge zinged, “Well, don’t relay the message.”

Walther came under fire in 2008, in the aftermath of the FLDS Texas compound raid, for being too rash in ordering the removal of hundreds of children and for being reluctant to believe some women, held by CPS with the kids, who were indeed over 18. Judging from the trial, she seems to have worked hard to eliminate any appearance of treating the FLDS and Jeffs unfairly. She may have even overindulged Jeffs by permitting his long-winded addresses. But in a trial so rife with appalling behavior, it was nice to see a woman in control.