CRANBROOK, B.C. â€” The leader of a fundamentalist sect that condones plural marriage stood silently in a British Columbia courtroom Tuesday, hands clasped in front of a pressed black suit, as a B.C. Supreme Court judge asked how he would plead to a charge of polygamy.
“The accused stands mute, my lady,” Winston Blackmore’s lawyer, Blair Suffredine, said after a moment of silence.
With that began the long-awaited trial of Blackmore and James Oler, who are each charged with one count of polygamy. Justice Sheri Donegan entered a not guilty plea on Blackmore’s behalf, while Oler, who is representing himself, pleaded not guilty.
Both men have served as bishops for the religious settlement of Bountiful in southeastern B.C., which follows the teachings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, often referred to as the FLDS.
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, while Oler allegedly has four wives.
Both men stared at the front of the courtroom throughout the first day of the trial, each occasionally jotting notes on a piece of paper.
A small pin depicting a black Bible was fastened onto the left lapel of Blackmore’s suit. Oler wore jeans, a blue dress shirt and a dark jacket decorated with the logo of a construction equipment manufacturer. The two sat side by side but did not speak to one another.
Special prosecutor Peter Wilson told the court his case will reference marriage records and birth certificates seized from the church’s Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas.
“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’s first witness, Brian Hales, told the court about the early history and tenets of the mainstream Mormon church and its various splinter groups that continue to practise plural marriage.
“Some of them believe, and their early leaders did teach this in a limited way, that the more wives a man marries and the more children he has by those wives, will increase their eternal reward,” said Hales, a medical doctor from Utah who has written several history books on polygamy and Mormonism.
Hales explained how the mainstream Mormon church promoted plural marriage between the 1850s until the early 1900s, after which members were threatened with excommunication for violating a manifesto banning the practice.
Wilson said he expects to call several more witnesses, including Blackmore’s first wife, Norma Jane Blackmore, who is also Oler’s sister.
The Bountiful 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 polygamy.
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.
â€” Follow @gwomand on Twitter
Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous story said Blackmore verbally pleaded guilty.