PHOENIX — Two polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups, a jury said Monday.
The civil rights trial marks one of boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have long said was a corrupt regime in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. The twin towns were accused of doing the bidding of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
The jury, which reached a verdict on its fourth day of deliberations, awarded $2.2 million to six residents eligible for damages. But the towns will only have to pay $1.6 million because lawyers negotiated a settlement over that part of the case.
The judge will now decide what other punishments to impose. Federal authorities have not specified the changes they will seek, but they could ask for the Colorado City Marshal's Office to be disbanded and for its duties to be handed over to local sheriffs.
"We wish it had gone a different way," said attorney Blake Hamilton, who represents Hildale.
The seven-week trial provided a rare glimpse into the FLDS communities that for years have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders. It also came as the federal government is waging fights on multiple fronts to rein in church activities.
A grand jury in Utah has indicted several church leaders on charges of food stamp fraud. A judge on Monday ordered the man who runs the day-to-day operations of the sect to stay behind bars until trial in that case.
The U.S. Labor Department has a separate action against a ranch with ties to the church over a pecan harvest in which children were forced to work long hours with few breaks.
During the civil rights case, the Justice Department said town employees assisted FLDS Church leader Warren Jeffs when he was a fugitive and took orders from church leaders during closed-door meetings about whom to appoint to government jobs.
They say local police ignored the food stamp fraud scheme and marriages between adult male church members and underage brides. Federal attorneys declined to comment after Monday's verdict.
One woman who was denied a water connection testified that she had to haul water to her home and take away sewage for six years. A former sect member said police ignored hundreds of complaints of vandalism on his horse property because he was no longer part of the church.
The towns deny the allegations and say the federal government is persecuting town officials because it disapproves of their religion. Their lawyers said the case could leave other religions open to similar attacks in court and urged jurors not to punish the towns for the actions of Jeffs, who is serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting an underage bride.
The federal government said town officials are beholden to Jeffs, who is believed to still run the church from his prison cell.
Federal attorneys describe the local police force and FLDS Church's security operation as paranoid entities that worked to violate the rights of nonbelievers. Witnesses for the government said church security spied on people with cameras placed around the towns and positioned themselves to keep an eye on who was arriving.
The former head of church security described elaborate cloak-and-dagger efforts taken to avoid scrutiny from outside law enforcement, such as using "burner" cellphones, encrypted radios and driving 40 miles to make phone calls out of fear that a local cell tower was being monitored by investigators.