Revisiting Warren Jeffs

Former prosecutors Eric Nichols and Fields Alexander and defense attorney Deric King Walpole revisit the mayhem surrounding the polygamist’s trial

Published in 2014 Texas Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on September 5, 2014


Deric King Walpole was on his way to tae kwan do on a Tuesday evening in July 2011 when his legal assistant called. Somebody from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wanted to talk to him. The next thing the McKinney criminal defense attorney knew, he was on a chartered plane at 5:30 a.m. to Schleicher County, where his jailed client was waiting to meet him.

This was Warren Jeffs, then 55, a leader of the polygamist breakaway Mormon sect since 2002. Jeffs was awaiting trial for sexual assault on two girls, 12 and 15, the latter of whom gave birth to his child. Texas Monthly would call Jeffs, accused of being married to 78 women—24 of them under 17—”one of the most manipulative criminal masterminds of the decade.”

It was the beginning of an insane five days for Walpole. The next morning he was in court. He spent at least 21 hours a day preparing the defense. This was after the state prosecutors, Eric Nichols and Fields Alexander, now with Beck Redden, had spent months meticulously linking Jeffs to child rape via DNA testing and audiotapes, including a horrifying one-hour recording in which Jeffs laid out details to the 15-year-old accuser, and 11 of his other wives, on how to participate in group sex with him.

Jeffs had been convicted in 2007 of rape as an accomplice in Utah, but the Utah Supreme Court overturned the conviction due to a problem with jury instructions. He also led the polygamist Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, and four months after the Utah decision, Texas officials extradited him to face trial on sexual assault and bigamy charges.

Walpole, with Nordhaus Walpole, joined Nichols and Alexander on a recent conference call to discuss the case. “During the entire course of the trial, whenever the judge would say, ‘All ready?’ I would say, ‘No,’” recalls Walpole. “There was not a lot of time to prepare for the trial.”

At this point, Nichols interjects, “At least you got good transportation, having those chartered planes! I was driving around in a state vehicle.”

Preparing for Jeffs’ defense on short notice turned out to be the least of Walpole’s problems. A Texas defense attorney for 13 years, Walpole was hired by Jeffs’ church after its disgraced prophet had dismissed nine other attorneys. On the Tuesday morning after Walpole agreed to take his case, Jeffs stood up at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo and declared, “I have released all my counsel. I desire to represent myself.” The judge ordered Walpole to sit through the rest of the trial as a “stand-by counsel.”

For the next 10 days, Jeffs, acting as his own attorney, rambled nonsensical objections to the prosecution’s case, some taking an hour, and made incomprehensible arguments suggesting “religious freedom” permitted his behavior with his child wives.

“Nothing he did surprised me,” recalls Walpole. “I got to sit there and watch. I didn’t have any control over it. The man wanted to talk, and the judge gave him the opportunity to do so.”

Nichols and Alexander, who represented the state of Texas, considered their prosecution “rock-solid,” but Jeffs’ behavior was challenging for them, too. “You never knew, day to day, or sometimes even hour to hour, what the next moves would be, or what direction he might give his counsel,” Alexander says. “I just felt like every time you’d come in from a break, there was really no telling what was going to happen next.” Adds Nichols, “We not only needed to vigorously represent the interests of the state, but we also needed to make sure that Warren Jeffs’ rights were fully protected. There was no reason to go through this entire lengthy process only to have to do it again.”

On the day of the verdict—guilty—Jeffs displayed no reaction. During the sentencing portion of the trial, the prosecution introduced even more damning evidence: He’d arranged 67 marriages between men and underage girls and facilitated 500 bigamous marriages, in addition to running for years from the law, according to Texas Monthly.

Jeffs received life plus 20 years in prison.

After the trial, Walpole appeared on CNN for an interview with self-help star Dr. Drew Pinsky. Walpole had requested questions in advance; he says Pinsky asked none of them. Instead, Pinsky said, “How do you go to sleep at night when you defend a guy like this?” Caught off guard, Walpole, in a thick goatee and gray, pinstriped suit, seemed peevish as he explained to Pinsky why the U.S. Constitution provides every accused criminal the right to defense counsel. (“I don’t care what people think,” Walpole says today. “A guy needs a lawyer.”)

Then Walpole ran into Nichols at a nearby restaurant, and they had a drink. Neither will say what they talked about. “There was certainly no animosity,” Walpole says. “He did an honorable job, and I thought I did as well.” He pauses. “He won and I lost.”

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