SAN ANGELO, Texas (Reuters) - Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who heads a breakaway Mormon sect, was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for sexually assaulting two underage girls he claimed as "spiritual" brides.
The Texas jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for less than an hour before giving him a 99-year, or life, sentence for one charge and 20 years for a second -- the maximum for both.
Prosecutors said Jeffs, 55, had "played a sick game of child molestation under the guise of religious ceremony."
He was convicted last week of aggravated sexual assault on a child and sexual assault on a child in connection with two girls he "married" when they were 12 and 14 years old.
Jeffs fathered a child with the older girl at his sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch in rural Texas and was heard on audio recordings telling groups of teenage girls they would be "rejected by God" if they refused his sexual advances.
The case against him and others stems from an April 2008 raid on the compound in Eldorado. Authorities took custody of some 400 children but later returned them to their families after an investigation and DNA tests.
Considered the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Jeffs had abused his position "to victimize children, to break up families and to satisfy his own personal appetites and desires," Assistant Texas Attorney General Eric Nichols told the jury.
Jeffs, who represented himself at trial, had argued in loud outbursts that the Texas court was trampling on his religious rights by trying the case.
His sect, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America, has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church and is accused of promoting marriages between older men and girls.
"Mr. Jeffs had his big house, where he chose to warehouse hundreds of girls and women for his sexual gratification," Nichols told the jury in closing arguments.
"The state of Texas has a big house too and that is where Warren Jeffs should spend the rest of his days."
Jeffs, who retained lawyers during the sentencing phase, told them to refrain from making closing arguments on his behalf but he made a written request for probation.
His lawyers said they would not be handling his appeal but that there were legitimate grounds for one.
Some legal experts have argued that, because the raid on the compound was triggered by a false report of abuse, the evidence gathered there could be disallowed.
But Judge Barbara Walther, who has presided over the case in her San Angelo courtroom since the raid, allowed evidence that prosecutors said proved Jeffs abused his position to have sex with girls as young as 12.
A dozen defendants connected to the Yearning for Zion Ranch have been indicted on sexual assault of a child, bigamy or other charges, according to Texas Attorney General's office.
Eight have been convicted on felony charges and the others are awaiting trial, it said.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by John O'Callaghan)
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