After a dragging 10-year period two leaders of an isolated polygamous community in Canada were finally convicted on Monday of practicing polygamy. The decision will likely pave the way for an intense court battle over the constitutionality of Canada’s polygamy laws.
British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Sheri Ann Donegan found Winston Blackmore, 60, and James Oler, 53 guilty of polygamy. The decision said that the evidence is clear that Blackmore was married to 25 women at the same time while Oler was married to five women in the tiny community of Bountiful.
Blackmore never denied in the past of having numerous wives and “defended” his practice as part of his “religious beliefs.” Blackmore said to reporters after the verdict was handed out: “I’m guilty of living my religion and that’s all I’m saying today because I never denied that. Twenty-seven years and tens of millions of dollars later, all we’ve proved is something we’ve never denied. I’ve never denied my faith. This is what we expected.”
Blair Suffredine, Blackmore’s lawyer, has said they would challenge the constitutionality of Canada’s polygamy laws.
The investigations into the polygamy practices of Blackmore and Oler, along with others, started as far back as in the early 1990s conducted by the provincial government. The pair would be sentenced at future hearings. Under Canadian law, however, the maximum penalty they will carry is only five years in prison.
The convicted two are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect that believes in multiple marriages. The group’s main base is located in a small community on the Utah-Arizona border in the U.S.
Oler took over the Canadian community just north of the U.S. state of Idaho after Blackmore’s excommunication from the sect in 2002 administered by Warren Jeffs, considered the prophet and leader of the group. Jeffs is himself serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered as brides. Authorities believe that Jeffs is still calling the shots for the sect from a Texas prison.
The mainstream Mormon church already renounced polygamy in the late 19th century and rejects any connection to the fundamentalist group’s form of Mormonism.
Much of the evidence used in the trial of Blackmore and Oler came from marriage and personal records seized by the police at a church compound in Texas in 2008.
The investigations and prosecution of the two dragged on for so long due to uncertainties surrounding Canada’s polygamy laws. A constitutional reference question had to be sent to the British Columbia Supreme Court and in 2011, the court ruled that laws banning polygamy were valid and did not violate religious freedoms guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.