and, this time, the Texas Attorney General reports, they also got the jerk for bigamy, which is not legal in Texas, despite his attempts to erase evidence that he entered into three marriages running concurrently. A Tom Green County Jury found Merril Leroy Jessup guilty yesterday.
SAN ANGELO, Texas — A Tom Green County jury Wednesday found Merril Leroy Jessop, 35, guilty of sexual assault of a child in connection with allegations he illegally married an underage girl.
The sentencing phase of his trial continues today, beginning at 9 a.m.
After the “marriage” Jessup contracted with the girl in this case, letters revealing Jessup’s continued residence at the FLDS ranch outside Eldorado were sent to cult leader Warren Jeffs. According to GoSanAngelo (the Standard-Times’ website), those letters were read in court during the trial:
Texas Ranger Danny Crawford took the stand to identify and read records and letters having to do with Jessop that were taken during the 2008 raid.
“Every time I look and see the temple I feel a surge go through me,” read one of the letters from Jessop to Jeffs.
The letter refers to the gleaming white, three-story building on the ranch.
Another letter informed the prophet that the girl Jessop married had graduated eighth grade, and he asked that she stay at home to help around the house.
When the jury returned, Crawford continued to identify documents other than personal letters, all addressed to “Uncle Warren.” The documents included listings that placed Jessop among the temple “builders” and “workers.”
In one letter, Jessop said he was in charge of the heavy machinery.
The defense attempted to prove that Jessup did not reside in Texas during the period in question. DNA evidence, and
expert testimony relating to it, indicated that there was a greater than 99% probability that Jessup was the father of a
child born before the girl he “married” in a “spiritual sealing” ceremony reached the age of consent in Texas. If you haven’t been following this story here or over at Corrente, all this began with a major raid by Texas DPS on the “Yearning for Zion Ranch,” constructed outside Eldorado in Schleicher County (possibly on land bought without revealing the purpose of the colony). Those of you who read here regularly know that Graham and I are stout defenders of the bill of rights, and we understand that religious freedom encompasses the freedom to do things we find incomprehensible or distasteful.
But it does NOT convey the freedom to rape children, or to indoctrinate children into believing that they must submit to rape to save their souls. This is one of the sacramental principles of the FLDS — like many patriarchal religions, it steeps its children in mental abuse, misogyny, and kowtowing to the “powers that be” in the community / church. One of the attorneys defending Jessup contends that the State of Texas has no right to prevent child abuse or rape by police intervention when such activities are reported to the authorities and those authorities respond, in good faith, to such allegations:
Attorneys and 51st District Judge Barbara Walther had spent the day looking at documents — including letters from Jessop to then-FLDS prophet and leader Warrn Jeffs — to establish that Jessop was at the YFZ Ranch at the time of the alleged offense.
The state is charged with proving the venue of the offense, which allegedly occurred on or about Aug. 20, 2006, when the girl was 15 and Jessop was 31.
The defense brought in witnesses after the state rested its case around 4:40 p.m. The defense asked Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran about his involvement in the April 2008 raid of the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado.
Lead prosecuting attorney Eric Nichols asked how Doran’s account of the raid was relevant.
“It demonstrates the other side of the story about a reason to fear law enforcement,” lead defense attorney Dan Hurley said.
To that effect, Hurley brought a Child Protective Services worker to address, in part outside of the presence of the jury, how the children were taken from their mothers.
More than 400 children were removed from the ranch. A Texas appellate court later ordered them to be returned.
The appellate court’s decision was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court. It is my belief that that court was swayed by
considerations of the cost of caring for those children — including housing, feeding, and educating them — more than it was by the real risk that those children would continue to endure abuse at the hands of their religious cult’s leadership, including their own parents and grandparents.
Prosecutors refuted the claim that Jessup legally married the girl, who was 15 when she was first raped, with emphasis on Texas’ laws regarding marriage.
Lead prosecutor Eric Nichols questioned whether an enhancement to Texas law applies to Jessop’s case.
The enhancement would make Jessop’s charge a first-degree felony punishable by a minimum of five years in prison with the recommendation of probation and a maximum of 99 years to life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
“I found that Merril Leroy Jessop was prohibited from marrying, purporting to marry or living with under the appearance of marriage” the girl, said John Sampson, the law professor testifying for the state, thereby affirming that the enhancement applied.
Sampson also said the girl was too young to have married anyone without having parental or judicial consent.
The girl was 15 at the time of the alleged offense.
The jurors attentively watched lead defense attorney Dan Hurley cross examine Sampson.
Hurley mentioned a family law textbook Sampson had edited, saying the FLDS community had been cited as a reason for creating the enhancement.
“Wouldn’t you agree with me that polygamy was one of the issues in the change of the law?” Hurley said.
“The issue was based on the underage marriage rather than polygamy,” Sampson said.
Hurley then turned to the bigamy statute.
“The policy behind the bigamy statute is to prevent fraud in marriage,” Hurley posed to Sampson.
Hurley offered the scenario of someone getting married to another woman without telling the wife about it.
“It’s certainly a purpose, but I wouldn’t say it’s the only purpose,” Sampson said.
Sampson later told Nichols that another purpose of the change in statute was to discourage underage marriage.
Hurley stressed that marriage is strictly defined in Texas.
“Marriage is defined as a union of one man and one woman, and any other is completely void, isn’t it?”
Earlier in the day, attorneys presented evidence that Jessop resided at the Yearning For Zion Ranch outside Eldorado, where the assault was alleged to have occurred.
Pictures showed photo albums and poster-sized pictures that depicted Jessop surrounded by a crowd of children and three young women that law enforcement personnel identified as his wives.
“These are photos of Merril Jessop along with his spouses,” one Department of Public Safety officer said.
One of the projected images showed Jessop in three separate photos with each one of his wives, with inscriptions of poetry accompanying each picture.
The poems expressed prayers for Jessop’s well-being and longing to be with him.
The trial has progressed to the punishment phase.
In spite of how I feel about the changes to marriage law in Texas specifically aimed at preventing marriage equality for homosexual couples (why the hell shouldn’t they get to marry, and raise kids, and see each other in the hospital, and inherit, and divorce, and be just as happy or just as miserable as the rest of us? This makes no sense to me), in this one case, the notion of “between one man and one woman” exclusively has been used to good purpose.