Winston Blackmore, who is charged with polygamy, heads into Cranbrook Supreme Court to hear the verdict from Justice Sheri-Anne Donegan on Monday, July 24. (Trevor Crawley photo)

Legal polygamy battle not over yet

Proceedings move to charter arguments, despite findings of guilt in polygamy trial.

Polygamist leader Winston Blackmore was rushed by a mob of media on Monday morning before entering Cranbrook Supreme Court to hear his judgement on a polygamy charge.

“We’ll see what happens,” he told reporters on his way into the building.

However, the outcome was never really in doubt, as Blackmore was adamant during the trial and after the verdict delivery that he was never going to deny his faith.

Special prosecutor Peter Wilson built a compelling case against Blackmore and his co-accused, James Marion Oler, during the course of the trial. Both Blackmore and Oler were charged with practicing polygamy; Blackmore with 24 wives, some of which were underage, over nearly 15 years span, while Oler was initially charged with practicing polygamy with four women, however, a fifth was added to his indictment during the proceedings.

Justice Sheri-Anne Donegan presided over the trial, hearing evidence that included religious marriage and personal records stored by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), along with testimony from experts on mainstream Mormon faith, police investigators, and Blackmore’s first legal wife, Jane Blackmore.

Much of Donegan’s ruling was also based around the analysis of a landmark constitutional reference case in 2011 that cemented polygamy as a crime within the Canadian Criminal Code and that the harms associated with polygamy outweigh the individual charter right to religious freedom.

The ruling from that reference case paved the way for charges of polygamy to be pursued against Blackmore and Oler.

In the judgement, Donegan had to determine if the Crown needed to prove harm, compulsion or lack of consent, the necessary elements to prove a conjugal union and the meaning of ‘practices’ as it relates to the two counts described in the indictment.

“The Crown is not required to prove each accused practised a form of polygamy or a kind of conjugal union with all of the persons named in the count applicable to that accused,” wrote Donegan, “nor is the Crown required to prove an accused did so over the duration of the time period specified in the count.

“Rather, the Crown is required to prove an accused was in more than one marriage at the same point in time within the specified timeframe.”

Donegan summarized the evidence of Dr. Brian Hales and Dr. Richard Bennett, expert witnesses both testified to the history of the mainstream Mormon church and the rift that occurred in 1890 after a religious revelation prohibited the practice of polygamy. From there, fundamentalist groups split off from the mainstream Mormon in order to practice polygamy, which the FLDS believes to be essential to reaching the highest order of heaven.

A significant portion of evidence against Blackmore and Oler involved marriage records that were seized by U.S. law enforcement during a raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch — an FLDS compound — in Texas in 2008.

Wilson submitted evidence of 22 marriage records for Winston Blackmore, and four marriage records for Oler. Additionally, Wilson also tendered Oler’s own personal record and the records of his five alleged wives as evidence.

The records were important to the case, given their spiritual significance — as described by both Dr. Hales and Dr. Bennett — that what is recorded on Earth is also recorded in Heaven. Indeed, the records were secured in a vault surrounded by concrete in an FLDS temple, as Texas Rangers had to drill through the side in order to gain entry.

“The records were kept in a relatively organized and systematic fashion,” Donegan wrote. “They were kept under very tight security. Such organization and significant security measures associated with their storage are good indicators that the records were of some significant importance to the FLDS.

“…Like the LDS, the FLDS adheres to the belief in the importance of certain valid ordinances for its members’ salvation. Accurate record keeping is integral to the validity of such an ordinance. This spiritual significance serves to enhance the ultimate reliability of the records.”

Jane Blackmore, the first legal wife of Winston Blackmore, was a key witness for the Crown.

She married Winston when she was 18 years old in a placement marriage — a marriage arranged by the FLDS prophet and leader based on revelations from the Lord. She remained in the relationship for nearly 30 years before filing for divorce and leaving the community.

Jane Blackmore was raised in the FLDS doctrine and knew her husband would marry additional wives, sometimes with or without her knowledge. When Winston had approximately 12 wives and 40 children, Jane Blackmore confronted him, asking him where he was ‘taking this’, to which Winston responded that he was only doing what God asked him to do.

“Her testimony is particularly compelling evidence that supports a finding that Mr. Blackmore knew he was in an existing marriage at the time he married all of his other celestial wives,” Donegan wrote.

A statement Winston Blackmore gave to RCMP in 2009 was also compelling evidence, as he told Sgt. Terry Jacklin during a police interview that he never denied being a polygamist. Blackmore spoke openly about his marriages even made corrections to the ages of his wives when Jacklin presented a chart.

Oler was found guilty of practicing polygamy though much of the same evidence, including his marriage and personal records seized from Texas, testimony from Jane Blackmore — his sister — and statements made to police in 2005 and 2006 during investigations into sexual exploitation.

“The Crown has overwhelmingly proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Oler, the accused before the Court, practised a marriage with more than one person at the same time within the time period set out in the Amended Indictment,” wrote Donegan. “In fact, the Crown has proven both that Mr. Oler entered into marriages with more than one person at the same time and that he practised marriages with more than one person at the same time.”

Oler did not participate in the trial process, declining to take any positions or make any submissions on his behalf during the proceedings. He did have the services of Joe Doyle, who served as Amicus curiae — a friend of the court who is present to ensure a fair trial but cannot provide a legal defence.

Though Blackmore and Oler have been found guilty, the process will head back to the courts as they both wish to make further arguments. Blackmore will be launching a charter challenge, while Oler will likely be making some common-law submissions through Doyle.

Following the guilty rulings, Blackmore told media gathered outside the Cranbrook Law Courts that he expected the guilty verdicts.

“I would’ve been hugely disappointed if I would’ve been found not guilty of living my religion,” he said.

Under the provisions in the Criminal Code, five years is the maximum jail sentence for polygamy, however, sentencing has yet to occur until guilty convictions are recorded and the lawyers make their constitutional arguments.

The basic outline of Suffredine’s argument is that since polygamy wasn’t officially considered a crime until the constitutional reference case upheld Section 293 of the Criminal Code in 2011, all evidence collected and used against Blackmore before that date — essentially the Crown’s entire case — should not be used against him.