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Video: ‘Sister Wives’ family investigated for polygamy

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    >>> but we begin this half hour with the polygamist family from utah we first met here on "today" last week. "today" national correspondent amy robach has teet details.

    >> the browns are featured in a new reality show "sister wives." their show's success may now come with a hefty price. when sister wives aired sunday on tlc, it was a big hit with viewers. the reality show about a family of polygamists was the most watched series premier on the cable network this year.

    >> 20 years ago i married mary and then 17 years ago, i married janell and then 16 years ago i married christine.

    >> reporter: and he recently added a fourth wife. but it wasn't just fans tuning in to see how cody brown was handling his four wives. it turns out the police department was watching too. they have launched an investigation into the polygamist marriage.

    >> of course the program brought a lot of it out into the open and so we're going to continue to investigate it.

    >> reporter: commenting on the police investigation, the browns released this statement. we are disappointed in the announcement of an investigation, but when we decided to do this show, we knew there would be risks. but for the sake of our family and most important our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking. last week on "today," brown and his wives told meredith why they were doing the show.

    >> i'm not trying to sell it to the world. when you're in a closed society, you feel kind of --

    >> oppressed.

    >> oppressed, exactly.

    >> it's dangerous, we really -- we're hoping that we can create more transparency for those in our faith.

    >> there's a lot of bad media about polygamy and this way of life and we're hoping to kind of dispel some of that and say, hey, that's not us, that's not our family.

    >> they didn't go into this blindly, they knew what they were doing, but they felt so strongly that they wanted to help educate people that, hey, here's a family that's happy and they get along. so i admire them and respect them for that choice.

    >> reporter: under utah law, polygamy is illegal, even though more than an estimated 25,000 people are currently practicing polygamy in the heavily mormon state. in the past, utah attorney general's office has declined to prosecute polygamy alone. the last prosecution was in 2001 when tom green married to five women was convicted on bigamy and child rape charges. he promoted his lifestyle on national television.

    >> and in green's case, he served six years in prison in ending in 2007 . once the investigation is complete, it will be up to the utah attorney general's office to decide if criminal charges will be filed.

    >> and you saw the friend of the brown family and co-founder of principal voices, a nonprofit polygamy organization. and the head of the special victims unit of the salt lake city attorney's office . good morning to you both. if i can start with you, you are a friend of the brown family , you encouraged them to do this show, in fact you were the one that initially got them in touch with the producers of the show. you talked to cody brown last night. what does he say about how the family is coping right now in light of this investigation?

    >> well, he first of all said that he was very humbled and very sobered by the whole experience. but that he had found peace in his heart. and even though it has been a real shock to them to find out about the investigation, they are a strong family, when i talked to christine, she said she felt like she had been hit in the stomach, but they are a very prayerful family and they have a lot of family solidarity, so they'll be okay.

    >> he knew that polygamy is against the law in the state of utah and obviously by exposing his family she was possibly going to subject them to an investigation. does he have any regrets about it now?

    >> he said he had absolutely no regrets, there's an important story he wants to tell and that's why he felt it was worth the risk and that's something that principal voices is trying to do too as well, is to educate people that this lifestyle is a viable lifestyle between contenting adults. it's a strongly held religious belief and we would like to be able to form our families like other alternative families.

    >> let's talk about this law in utah , because technically as i said, it is illegal, polygamy is illegal, you can be sentenced to up to five years in jail. but the prosecutor's office has said it will not prosecute these cases involving consenting adult unless there involves child abuse . why is this investigation going forward?

    >> ann, this is for greg , i apologize. greg ?

    >> excuse me, i'm sorry.

    >> i would say that the only reason they would go forward in a case like this is because, you're right, we don't prosecute polygamy in utah , we don't prosecute crimes between consent consenticonsen consenting adults . but we have sort of gone over the line in this case because now they're doing it, they're flaunting this and it is a felony on national tv . we don't prosecute bingo parlors, we don't prosecute people who gamble in their homes. but if they want to do that type of thing on national tv , certainly if you're going to have the law, you've got to at least look into it. so the lehigh police department and ultimately the utah county attorney's office are going to have to make some decisions. the laws are on the books and if you're not going to prosecute when these people are doing it so blatantly then you're never going to prosecute the case. i don't know that they will necessarily.

    >> do you think prosecutors need to do anything more than watch the television show to build their case?

    >> i'm sure they'll subpoena the tapes of the other segments that have been cut or whatnot. if i was prosecuting a case like this, you could show this segment, the series in front of a jury and i don't see that there would be any defense to the felony crime of bigamy that's been committed here.

    >> but, greg , he's technically only married legally to one woman, mary, the other marriages are common law , they're respected and honored by the church, but that's it, they're not legal marriages. so in that case, does that give them any protection under the law?

    >> no, because under the law, you could only get one marriage certificate . the utah county clerk's office would only be able to issue one certificate. so under that theory it would be impossible to commit the crime. the law says that if you cohabitate and live together as husband and wife knowing that you've got another spousal relationship going at the same time, you've committed the crime.

    >> many people when they think of multiple marriages they think of these high profile second leaders who are often sent to prison, people like tom green who was convicted of child rape and abuse. what do you want to get out in this case involving the browns?

    >> in most cases we're very average families just like the show portrays on "sister wives." we would eventually like to see the law changed, as greg mentioned, it is a felony, but we feel like that's a very high penalty and a high rating for our lifestyle when adultery is only a misdemeanor and we would certainly like to see it reduced and in order to do that someone has to come out publicly and explain to the public more about our lifestyle so they'll understand it.

    >> and i want you to quickly answer this, if there are no other crimes beyond polygamy , do you think they will face charges?

    >> i think that's a really tough case, meredith. i think the utah county attorney's office is in a no win situation, he may just run it up the flag pole with a jury and let them decide because we really don't prosecute these crimes in utah .

    >> thank you so much for your perspectives this morning, we really appreciate it.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you.

IMAGE: Browns
Bryant Livingston  /  AP
The Browns, from left, Janelle, Christine, Kody, Meri, and Robyn from the TLC series, "Sister Wives," are being investigated for bigamy by police in Utah.
updated 9/29/2010 11:16:43 AM ET 2010-09-29T15:16:43

A Utah family with four wives had hoped its participation on a TLC reality TV show would shed light on polygamy.

But now that it is the target of a bigamy investigation by Utah police, one advocate worries that the probe will instill fear in other plural families about going public with their lives.

"If it really goes to a court situation, then our people are going to go right back into isolation," said Anne Wilde, co-founder of Principle Voices, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public about polygamous families.

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Over the past 10 years, Utah's historically insular polygamist community has worked with state agencies to increase understanding of the unique aspects of polygamous culture, Wilde said. As a result, plural families are now less hesitant to seek help and services when needed, she said.

The Brown family's decision to do the reality TV show was sort an extension of that education work, said Wilde, who knows the family well.

"Sister Wives," which premiered Sunday, chronicles the life of 41-year-old advertising salesman Kody Brown, his four wives, 13 children and three stepchildren. The Browns, of Lehi, have said they hoped that the peek into their lives would help broaden the public's understanding of plural families.

Lehi police are investigating whether the family is violating bigamy laws in plain view on cable TV. Brown is only legally married to Meri but also calls three other women his spouses: Janelle, Christine and Robyn.

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"...When we decided to do this show, we knew there would be risks," the Brown family said in a statement Tuesday. "But for the sake of our family, and most importantly, our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking."

Most polygamist families practice in secret, but it has entered the national dialogue given its portrayal on the HBO scripted drama "Big Love." The modern Mormon church excommunicates members found engaged in the practice, which was disavowed by the church in 1890 as part of a push for Utah's statehood.

Video: The ‘Sister Wives’ shed light on faith, polygamy (on this page)

On a TLC ad for "Sister Wives," one wife says: "I think we're normal, and then I go out and then I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I can't tell anybody about my normal family.'"

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Across Utah and parts of the western U.S., an estimated 38,000 self-described fundamentalist Mormons continue to believe and/or practice polygamy, believing it brings exaltation in heaven.

Although it is rarely prosecuted, bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah, punishable by a prison term of up to five years. Under the Utah law, a person can be found guilty of bigamy through cohabitation, not just legal marriage contracts.

Lehi police said the evidence gathered from the probe will be turned over to the Utah County attorney's office for possible prosecution. A message left for Paul was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Utah last prosecuted a polygamist for bigamy in 2001. Tom Green, who was married to five women and drew the attention of Utah authorities after promoting his lifestyle on national TV talk shows, was convicted on bigamy, criminal nonsupport and child rape charges. He spent six years in prison and was released in 2007.

The Utah attorney general's office has investigated the state's secretive polygamous communities, but focused its efforts on cases involving allegations of abuse, sexual assault and fraud, not bigamy.

"It has been our office's position not to pursue cases of bigamy between consenting adults," the attorney general's spokesman, Scott Troxel, said Tuesday. "We want to use our resources wisely."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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