Judge considers postponing polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs’ trial

Posted at 11:38 AM, Aug 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-03 20:14:03-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge is considering whether to delay the upcoming trial of polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs.

In a hearing in U.S. District Court on Thursday, defense attorneys asked U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart for a delay until at least January 2018 to give them more time to prepare. They also raised concerns about a pair of brain injuries he suffered in 1997 and '98 and whether it could impact his ability to assist in his defense.

Judge Stewart questioned if Jeffs was unable to assist with his defense.

"Did you observe anything that gave you reason to believe -- any concerns -- that he would be unable to assist in his own defense?" the judge asked.

A booking mug shot of Lyle Jeffs. (Image via Tooele County Sheriff's Office)

Jeffs' defense attorney, Kathy Nester, said she didn't believe he would be incompetent to face trial, but asked the judge to allow him to be evaluated with an MRI.

"Because if he decides to testify, there are things he may not remember," she said.

Nester also told the judge there is still massive amounts of evidence in the case. She said she also planned to file papers by Monday seeking to separate his trial on food stamp fraud charges from a charge of failure to appear stemming from his time on the run as a fugitive.

Federal prosecutors indicated they would resist significant delays to the upcoming trial, slated to begin Sept. 14 in Salt Lake City. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lund said he would agree to a continuance no later than the end of October.

On the issue of Jeffs' head injuries, Lund questioned why it was brought up now.

"Mr. Jeffs is the leader of a major organization," Lund told the judge. "He was the head of this large community."

Jeffs, once a bishop in Utah's largest polygamous church, the Fundamentalist LDS Church, is facing trial on food stamp fraud, money laundering and failure to appear charges. He and 10 other FLDS members were indicted in a massive food stamp fraud scheme federal prosecutors have alleged bilked taxpayers out of more than $12 million.

The others have struck plea deals or had charges dismissed. Jeffs vanished from home confinement last year. The FBI first told FOX 13 he used olive oil to slip out of a GPS monitoring device. He was arrested in South Dakota in June.

In court, lawyers revealed his trial could last weeks.

"I don't see a way we can do this case in under a month," said Nester.

Lund countered he believed it could be tried in two weeks. The feds plan to call 25 witnesses, including ex-FLDS members, and introduce more than 200 pieces of evidence.

A jury trial would be a significant undertaking, lawyers noted, given the amount of global attention the FLDS Church has drawn.