After a deliberating for less than an hour, a Texas jury found Wendell Loy Nielsen, a lieutenant of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, guilty of three counts of bigamy. He faces up to 10 years in prison for each count.
Nielsen was accused of marrying three women in 2006 when they were 43, 58 and 65.
Nielsen, 71, is one of a dozen men with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints charged with bigamy after the 2008 raid of the sect’s Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. The sect, which has about 10,000 followers, broke off with the Mormon church in the 1880s over whether to ban polygamy.
Prosecutors said in opening arguments that Nielsen violated Texas bigamy laws because he lived with more than one woman and claimed to be married to them all. He allegedly had 35 wives, although he was charged with just three counts of bigamy.
The issue put to the jury of five women and seven men was whether “spiritual” or “celestial” marriages are true marriages under Texas law. Bigamy, rarely charged in the United States, is illegal in most western countries. Most cases involve someone marrying someone in the U.S., unaware that their marriage in a previous country was still valid.
Defense lawyer David Botsford said the state could not prove that celestial marriage violates the law, as usually only the first wife has a marriage license.
"Apply the law and the facts that the judge gives you,” Botsford said. “Those marriages are spiritual unions."
Of the dozen male members of the sect were charged, 10 were convicted including Warren Jeffs. Jeffs was sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old he took in as a bride in what his church deemed a “spiritual marriage.” Ten of those men have been convicted.
Tony Gutierrez / AP
Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl he took in as a bride.
Jeffs is now in protective custody at a prison in Palestine, Texas. He still exerts his authority and sends out prophetic messages to public officials. He has also taken out advertisements in newspapers throughout the country.
Nielsen had been the president of the sect’s corporation in Utah until Jeffs took over again in 2011.
More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Record jackpot as Mega Millions hits $500 million
- Cops: Suspect in Vt. teacher's death wanted to 'get a girl'
- Couple lives in fear after address tweeted as Zimmerman's
- Gingrich axes third of staff, reduces travel