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Not guilty pleas entered for two accused men in B.C. polygamy trial

Winston Blackmore, who is accused of practising polygamy in a fundamentalist religious community, arrives for the start of his trial in Cranbrook, B.C., Tuesday, April 18, 2017.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
April 18, 2017 - 8:50 PM

CRANBROOK, B.C. - The leader of a fundamentalist sect that condones plural marriage remained silent as a long-awaited trial of two men on polygamy charges began Tuesday in British Columbia.

Winston Blackmore had a not guilty plea entered on his behalf in B.C. Supreme Court in Cranbrook, while James Oler pleaded not guilty. Each man faces one charge of polygamy.

Both men have served as bishops for the religious settlement of Bountiful, which follows the teachings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, often referred to as the FLDS.

Oler is representing himself while Blackmore stood beside his lawyer and remained mute when asked for a plea. Justice Sheri Donegan said a not guilty plea would be entered on his behalf.

Blackmore's lawyer, Blair Suffredine, said outside court his client chose to say nothing for religious reasons.

"He doesn't want to deny his faith. He doesn't feel guilty," Suffredine said. "The technical way around that is don't say anything and they'll enter the plea not guilty."

Blackmore is accused of marrying 24 women over 25 years in the community.

Special prosecutor Peter Wilson told the court his case includes marriage records seized from the church's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, which were used in 2010 to sentence leader Warren Jeffs to life in a U.S. prison for sexually assaulting two young girls.

"The Crown will present evidence establishing that members of the FLDS, including the accused, engage or have engaged in the practice of polygamy, which is what the FLDS refers to as plural marriage or celestial marriage," Wilson said.

"Specifically, the Crown will demonstrate that both accused entered into marriages with multiple women."

Wilson said he expects to call expert witnesses to testify on the origin and history of polygamy, in addition to Norma Jane Blackmore, who is Blackmore's first wife and Oler's sister.

The case has a long history dating back to the early 1990s when police first investigated allegations that residents of an isolated religious community were practising multiple marriages.

A lack of clarity around Canada's polygamy laws led to failed attempts at prosecuting Blackmore, followed by several efforts to clarify the legislation, including a reference question to the B.C. Supreme Court. The court ruled in 2011 that laws banning polygamy were constitutional and did not violate religious freedoms guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As the trial began, Donegan released her reasons for rejecting an application from Blackmore to be tried separately from Oler, saying a substantial overlap in evidence against the two men means it is in the public interest for them to be tried together.

"Society has an interest in seeing justice done in a reasonably efficient and cost-effective manner," Donegan said.

"Mr. Blackmore has the right to a fair trial, as does Mr. Oler. A joint trial in these circumstances does not compromise the rights of either accused to that fair trial."

The judge-alone trial is scheduled to last several weeks.

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous story said Blackmore verbally pleaded guilty.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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