PHOENIX (CN) - A federal religious discrimination trial against two Arizona and Utah towns with fundamentalist Mormon followers resumed Monday after a nearly week-long recess amid concerns jury members had seen news reports that church leaders were arrested last week on food stamp fraud charges.
The recess in the trial came after U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland fell ill in court Feb. 22 after battling bronchitis for two weeks. Holland was taken from the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse to a nearby hospital in an ambulance, delaying proceedings.
On Feb. 23, 11 top leaders and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud and money laundering.
According to a two-count indictment, church leaders diverted funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and ordered church members to use the benefits to place goods in a communal storehouse to be distributed to other members.
Among the 11 arrested were Lyle Jeffs and Sam Jeffs - two brothers of Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the FLDS church. Warren Jeffs is serving life plus 20 years in Texas for the sexual abuse of two girls whom he called his "spiritual wives."
Lyle Jeffs, a bishop in the FLDS, handles the daily affairs of the sect while Sam Jeffs leads a congregation of FLDS followers in Custer County, South Dakota, the indictment says.
The indictment dropped as the religious discrimination trial against Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah nears its close. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the towns in 2012, claiming they deny access to police protection, housing and utilities for residents who are not church members.
Holland entered the courtroom Monday before the jury was brought in and expressed his concerns to attorneys for the cities and the Justice Department that jurors may have heard about or seen news reports detailing the indictment and arrests.
After some discussion with attorneys as to how detailed Holland should be in questioning the jurors, the jury was brought in.
Holland asked jury members if they were exposed to news reports or heard anything last week regarding Colorado City, Hildale, or church leaders, but his concerns quickly dissipated as each juror shook his or her head no.
The court resumed with the testimony of Sam Johnson, a sergeant in the Colorado City Marshal's Office. According to the Justice Department, the Marshal's Office selectively enforces "laws and regulations against non-FLDS individuals on the basis of religion."
Johnson repeatedly denied any religious discrimination committed by himself or by any other members of the Marshal's Office.
"[The church] never had control of the Marshal's Office," Johnson told the court.
On Feb. 22, Johnson testified his promotion to sergeant in the summer of 2012 could not have been influenced by the church because he was kicked out of the church in March 2012.
Matthew Donnelly, an attorney for the Justice Department, questioned Johnson's timeline.
"Didn't you tell Utah POST investigators in February 2013 that you were still a member of the FLDS church?" Donnelly asked. Utah POST oversees the certification and decertification of police officers.
"Maybe it was a hopeful comment," Johnson testified.
"It's not just a passing comment, they asked you about it a few times," Donnelly replied.
"I think in essence that's what my faith was," Johnson told the court. "I can't have the FLDS faith to guide me?"
Johnson told Donnelly he had once felt that Warren Jeffs was his "personal prophet," but no longer had those feelings. Johnson also said he did not know for what crime Warren Jeffs was imprisoned.
"People have told me different things," Johnson testified.
The trial continues Tuesday.
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