Texas trial to focus on whether sect marriages broke bigamy law

Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:33pm EDT
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By Matthew Waller

MIDLAND, Texas (Reuters) - Were the "spiritual" marriages of a former leader of a breakaway Mormon sect to multiple women true marriages under Texas law?

That's the question that a jury of five women and seven men will have to answer in the bigamy trial that started this week of a former president of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Wendell Loy Nielsen, 71, is charged with three counts of bigamy, a rarely prosecuted crime.

Prosecutors said in opening arguments on Thursday in Midland, Texas that religious documents will show that Nielsen was living with women and claiming to be married, in violation of Texas bigamy laws.

"You will see documents showing that they became a part of the family unit. They were held out by the parties as being married," prosecutor Eric Nichols said.

But defense lawyer David Botsford said the evidence would show that the marriages by church members were not the kind of marriage covered in the bigamy law. The defense did not say in what way they did not consider spiritual marriages to be legal marriages and is likely detail the stance later in the trial.

"The state cannot prove that celestial marriage or spiritual marriage violates the bigamy statute," Botsford said. "Apply the law and the facts that the judge gives you. Those marriages are spiritual unions."

Members of the sect have testified in previous trials that "spiritual" or "celestial" marriages do not usually involve a marriage license except for the first wife.   Continued...