Polygamist asks court to overturn sexual assault sentence

Austin, USA - A lawyer for polygamist sect member Raymond Merril Jessop on Wednesday asked an Austin appeals court to overturn his conviction and 10-year sentence for sexually assaulting his underage "celestial bride" at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas.

Church elders assigned the girl to be one of Jessop's nine wives when she was 15, and she gave birth a year later to Jessop's daughter, as confirmed by DNA testing, according to testimony at his 2009 trial.

Subtracting nine months from the birth of the child, prosecutors alleged that the sexual assault occurred in mid-November 2004 — when Jessup was 33 and the girl 16 — at the YFZ Ranch, owned by a breakaway Mormon sect that encourages male followers to take multiple wives.

But defense lawyer Clinton Broden argued Wednesday that state officials lacked jurisdiction to prosecute Jessop because they failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the sexual encounter occurred in Texas.

Prosecutors introduced church records that placed Jessop and the girl at the ranch near Eldorado in July, August and December 2004, but no witness or evidence accounted for their whereabouts when the girl was impregnated in November, Broden said.

"There was absolutely no evidence that the offense charged in the indictment took place in the state of Texas," Broden told a three-judge panel of the 3rd Court of Appeals.

But Ed Marshall, an appellate lawyer with the state attorney general's office, said jurors heard enough evidence to render a guilty verdict.

"The state's not required to defeat all doubt in the trial here. They are not required to disprove every possible theory, especially when there is no evidence to indicate otherwise," Marshall said.

"We know that (they) were on the ranch prior to conception. We know they were married on the ranch. And we know they were cohabitating at the time," Marshall said. "Those things all tell us that a juror can infer that cohabitation on the ranch was continuing."

Jessop was the first of eight members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to be convicted on sexual assault, bigamy or other charges stemming from evidence collected during an April 2008 raid on the ranch. The raid, spurred by a hoax phone call alleging sexual mistreatment, prompted state officials to remove almost 440 children after law officers found indications of underage marriages and pregnant teenage girls.

The Texas Supreme Court ordered the children to be returned almost two months later.

The 3rd Court of Appeals has no time limit to issue a ruling.

In August, the appeals court upheld the conviction of sect member Michael Emack, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old at the ranch. The court rejected Emack's claim that the search of ranch was not legally justified.