State may handle polygamy cases

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah's attorney general is considering a plan to have the state handle polygamy prosecutions, lifting the responsibility from county attorneys.

Juab County Attorney David Leavitt and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff made the proposal during aStatewide Association of Prosecutors meeting last month.

Before it happens, Shurtleff said he wants the support of each of the state's 29 county attorneys.

The idea would mean a major shift in how crimes within polygamist communities will be pursued.

The practice of marrying multiple women is a relic from the Mormon religion's past. Although disavowed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some fringe groups still think of polygamy as a religious right.

So far, the county attorneys approached with the plan have been unanimously supportive, Leavitt said.

Leavitt, Gov. Mike Leavitt's brother, put a spotlight on polygamy when he pursued Utah's first major polygamy prosecution in decades.

Tom Green -- an admitted polygamist who often boasted of his life with his five wives on national television -- was convicted in May of bigamy and failure to pay child support.

Leavitt said the trial taught him that these cases are best handled by the state.

"To effectively handle this problem, you need a uniform approach with the same players," Leavitt said.

Davis County Attorney Mel Wilson said counties simply don't have the resources or expertise to prosecute polygamists.

A committee of county prosecutors is expected to craft guidelines for pursuing these cases. Wilson said it's likely prosecutors would recommend focusing on only the most serious polygamy cases, in which crimes such as child sex abuse, welfare fraud or racketeering are present.

"If all of the sudden you say you're going to prosecute all polygamists, we'd all have to hire about 15 people in each of our offices," Wilson said.

Shurtleff said state investigators helping on the Tom Green case uncovered many cases of young girls being married into polygamist families in the Utah-Arizona border town of Hildale.

His office would start taking cases with its limited staff as soon as it gets the prosecutors' permission, he said.