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Polygamist leader mute during opening statement

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A law enforcement official stands by as Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, left, arrives at the Tom Green County Courthouse July 28, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) A law enforcement official stands by as Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, left, arrives at the Tom Green County Courthouse July 28, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — A Texas prosecutor told jurors Thursday he would present an audio recording of a polygamist sect leader raping a 12-year-old and other evidence showing the 55-year-old impregnated a 15-year-old girl during the man's sexual assault trial.

The trial began shortly after Warren Jeffs fired his high-powered defense team and a judge allowed the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to defend himself.

But when it came his turn to present an opening statement, Jeffs was mute, sitting silently in his courtroom seat.

Then, as the prosecutor continued to present his case, Jeffs stared off into space, appearing not to be paying attention to the proceedings.

"You've sat here now for an hour and not said a word," District Judge Barbara Walther said, then added his continued silence could have "a very bad result."

The silence was a sharp contrast to Jeffs' earlier behavior in court. Then, he spoke for more than 20 minutes, telling the judge he had spent extensive time training his lawyers, but they weren't able to present "a pure defense." He then pleaded for more time to prepare the case by himself.

But Walther turned down that request. Jeffs has burned through seven attorneys in six months, and prosecutors complained his frequent switching of counsel was a delay tactic.

"Mr. Jeffs, the court is not going to recess these proceedings to let you go to law school," Walther said in deciding to start the trial as scheduled.

Jeffs' sect is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in Heaven, and followers see him as God's spokesman on Earth. He is accused of sexually assaulting two underage girls at a remote compound in West Texas. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

The surreal day in court began with Jeffs addressing Walther in long and complicated sentences frequently punctuated by awkward pauses when he would stare intently at the floor.

"The condition of my present defense is such that I cannot use them," he said of his attorneys. "They, not having all needed understanding for my defense, which wants for representation by one who knows and understands the facts of these truths."

Walther asked when he had arrived at the decision, and Jeffs launched into another long-winded answer, assuring her that neither he nor his attorneys have "been idle."

"This has been a continued labor on my part, seeing counsel often have ideas different from the needs at hand," he said, adding that his defense team never "had a true understanding of the facts."

Walther ordered all of Jeffs' attorneys to remain on as side counsel but held firm on no further delays.

"You cannot fire your lawyers in an attempt to get a continuance," she said. "We're going forward today, sir. Can you understand that?"

Jeffs said not allowing him more time to prepare wouldn't allow "true justice to be served, which is the purpose of the court of law in a nation that professes true justice be served."

Walther didn't grant Jeffs' motion to represent himself without first urging him to reconsider. She also said he would get no special favors.

"You have assembled one of the most impressive legal teams this court has ever seen and perhaps ever seen in the state of Texas," the judge said. She later added, "I urge you not to follow this course of action."

Now that Jeffs is representing himself, what he will argue in his own defense is unclear. One of his former attorneys, Deric Walpole, said Monday he would argue his client's constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion had been trampled by police. But Walpole also hinted Jeffs wouldn't testify or otherwise address the jury during the case.

Jeffs' sect has more than 10,000 members nationwide, and his defense had been financed by an FLDS land trust believed to be worth more than $110 million.

The charges against him stem from a massive police raid in April 2008 at Yearning For Zion, a compound about 45 miles south of the oil and gas town of San Angelo, where Jeffs' trial is taking place. More than 400 children were placed in protective custody, and women who live on the compound appeared on airwaves across the country wearing their traditional, frontier-style dresses and hairdos from the 19th century.

Authorities moved in after receiving an anonymous call to an abuse shelter, alleging that girls on the compound were being forced into polygamist marriages. The call turned out to be a hoax, made by a woman in Colorado, and the children were returned to their families. But police saw underage girls who were clearly pregnant — prompting the charges against Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men.

All seven sect members who have been prosecuted so far were convicted, receiving prison sentences of between six and 75 years.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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