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VANCOUVER – A special prosecutor has urged British Columbia’s Court of Appeal to overturn the acquittal of a polygamous leader who was accused of taking a 15-year-old girl across the border for a sexual purpose.
In February 2017, a B.C. Supreme Court judge concluded the Crown failed to prove James Oler arranged the transfer of the girl from Canada to the United States to marry another member of his fundamentalist sect.
A prosecutor told an appeal hearing on Thursday that Warren Jeffs, prophet and president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the U.S., called Oler in 2004 when he was the presiding elder and bishop of the community in Bountiful, B.C.
Jeffs told Oler to bring the girl to the U.S. to be married and, because followers of the religion believe Jeffs has a “direct connection to God,” Oler swiftly complied, Peter Wilson argued.
“That’s the hierarchy. God speaks to the prophet, Warren Jeffs,” he said.
A woman originally from Bountiful testified at the trial that she was 16 when she and two adults crossed the border into Idaho a day after Jeffs called Oler in 2004, Wilson said. The trio stopped at a wooded rest area just off the highway, he said.
Wilson said the woman testified that a second van arrived containing Oler and the 15-year-old girl Jeffs had ordered him to bring to the U.S. The woman who was 16 at the time and the two adults with her piled into the second van, Wilson said.
Marriage records show the 15-year-old girl married a 24-year-old man, with Jeffs performing the ceremony and Oler acting as a witness, the prosecutor argued.
“This was not simply a circumstantial case. There was direct evidence,” said Wilson.
The trial judge acquitted Oler because he was not convinced Oler did anything within Canada’s borders to arrange the girl’s transfer. There was no evidence confirming Oler’s location when he received the phone call from Jeffs and no record of either Oler or the 15-year-old girl crossing the border.
But Wilson said proof of wrongdoing inside Canada is not necessary to convict the man.
The law against removing children for a sexual purpose is designed to protect youth who are taken to another country and subjected to an offence that would be a crime under Canadian law, he argued. It therefore applies to Oler’s actions in the U.S., Wilson said.
“This was an error of law,” he said. “But for the error, Mr. Oler would have been convicted.”
Wilson asked the appeal court judges to either convict Oler or order a new trial.
Oler sat in the courtroom on Thursday. He did not have a lawyer at the hearing, so an impartial adviser has been appointed to assist the court and provide balance.
The adviser, Joe Doyle, disputed Wilson’s interpretation of the law. The section of the Criminal Code specifically applies to offenders who “remove” children from Canada, he said.
“It’s impossible for him to commit the offence because he can’t remove her if she’s already out of the country,” he said.
Oler declined to speak at the hearing.
Following the same trial that led to Oler’s acquittal, the judge found Emily Ruth Gail Blackmore and her estranged husband Brandon Blackmore guilty of bringing a 13-year-old girl to the U.S. to marry Jeffs.
Emily Blackmore, also known as Gail, is appealing her conviction and her lawyer told the appeal court on Wednesday that she likely didn’t know about the planned marriage when she accompanied her husband on a trip to the U.S.
The panel of three judges reserved their decisions on both appeals on Thursday.
In a separate case, a B.C. Supreme Court judge found Oler guilty of polygamy last July for marrying five women and he’ll be sentenced on that conviction next week.
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