Food stamp fraud trial postponed amid disputes over polygamists’ religious beliefs

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

By

A federal judge on Tuesday postponed the trial for 11 members of a polygamous sect who are accused of misusing food stamp benefits.

The trial had been scheduled to start Oct. 3 and last four weeks, but federal prosecutors and the FBI have said in court filings that they are still gathering all the evidence to provide to the defense.

Judge Ted Stewart did not set a new date Tuesday. Instead, he scheduled a three-day hearing to begin Oct. 4.

That hearing will tackle one reason the trial was postponed. Defense attorneys want Stewart to consider dismissing the indictments on grounds that they violate the tenets of their clients, who are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The defense attorneys say FLDS leaders counsel parishioners to consecrate their belongings to the church, and that’s what the defendants were doing when they gave food purchased with food stamps or sometimes the government-issued debit cards themselves to the FLDS’ storehouse. But to demonstrate those beliefs, the defendants may have to testify in the October hearing.

Jim Bradshaw, one of about a dozen defense attorneys who attended Tuesday’s hearing in person or by telephone, stood to explain to Stewart that the criminal case against the FLDS members is unique, and Stewart needs to set limitations on what prosecutors could ask the defendants on cross-examination.

Otherwise, Bradshaw, who represents defendant John Wayman, said prosecutors could ask defendants intrusive questions about their religion that would also incriminate them.

“We’re plowing some new ground here,” Bradshaw said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund countered that the defense seems to want to be able to argue both that their clients are protected by religious freedoms and that they didn’t commit the fraud. If the suspects want to make an affirmative defense, Lund said, then the law requires them to admit to the allegations in the indictment.

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