By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANGELO, Texas (Reuters) - Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who heads a breakaway Mormon sect, was sentenced to life in prison 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.
The case against Jeffs and others stems from a raid on his sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch in rural Texas in April 2008. Authorities took custody of some 400 children but returned them to their families after an investigation and DNA tests.
Prosecutors said Jeffs, 55, "played a sick game of child molestation under the guise of religious ceremony."
He will serve his prison terms consecutively and is not eligible for parole until 2070. Jeffs 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.
He fathered a child with the older girl and was heard on audio recordings telling groups of teenage girls they would be "rejected by God" if they refused his sexual advances.
A crowd heckled Jeffs as he was put into a police car after the sentencing.
"Do you still think you're the prophet?" one woman yelled.
Jeffs abused his position as leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints "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 court was trampling on his religious rights by hearing 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 said 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."
William Jessop, who has acted as the unofficial spokesman for the group's Texas ranch in the past, said the trial showed the government should have acted sooner to rescue women and children who were being abused by Jeffs.
"There was evidence that was seized way back in 2006 and 2007 of this abuse," he said, referring to some recordings. "That's a lot of years and all we can do is thank God that he was stopped."
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 ranch were indicted on sexual assault of a child, bigamy or other charges, according to Texas Attorney General's office. Eight were convicted on felony charges and the others are awaiting trial, it said.
A polygamist advocacy coalition in Utah and Arizona said the life sentence for Jeffs was justified.
"I feel like justice has been done," said Anne Wilde, a spokeswoman for Principle Voices. "I don't feel like he should be out in society, even among his own group."
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by John O'Callaghan)