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Erlinda Johnson representing New Mexico Secretary of State in emotional sentencing

Earlier this week, New Mexico’s former secretary of state was sentenced before a Judge in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges relating to the use of her election campaign account funds — the money was used to fund her personal gambling habit. An emotional Dianne Duran offered heartfelt apologizes for her actions, but ultimately the Judge felt that the recommendation to sentence her to no jail was too lenient.

The interesting part of the deal was that former secretary of state, Dianne Duran, pleaded guilty to the charges based on a plea agreement with the Attorney General’s Office, which allowed her to withdraw the plea if she was sentenced to jail time. Both her attorney, Erlinda Johnson, and the Attorney General’s Office recommended a non jail sentence. Duran pleaded to two felonies and four misdemeanors for stealing campaign donations.  

The Judge rejected the recommendations as too lenient and instead sentenced Duran to 30 days in jail followed by 5 years’ probation and approximately $28,000 in fines and restitution. In addition, she must prepare written apologizes to her victims and to six newspapers as well as make 144 public appearances in front of schools and civic groups to caution people about violating the public trust as a politician. The Judge also ordered GPS monitoring for two years to ensure that she doesn’t enter any more casinos.

The Judge gave Duran until Wednesday to decide to withdraw her plea and face a trial in the original 65 count charging document. Strangely enough, the Judge also expressed his own desire that she not withdraw her plea. “Ms. Duran you’ve asked this court for the opportunity to rehabilitate yourself,” Judge Ellington said. “That opportunity is standing before you. It starts Friday at 9 a.m. when you walk through the front door of the Santa Fe County Detention Center.”

Although I can’t speak to how unique it is in New Mexico to allow a defendant the right to withdraw a plea if the sentence does not comport with the plea agreement, it certainly creates a lot of interesting legal issues. Considering that Duran asserted her guilt to at least some of the charges, could she really obtain a fair and unbiased jury trial after the intense media coverage? Is the language that the Judge used to express his desire that she not withdraw her plea enough to support a motion to recuse him at a trial? Obviously, the Judge picked a length of incarceration that is low enough to make it difficult for Duran to consider rolling the dice at trial. And ultimately even a 30 day jail term for a public official charged with violating the public’s trust is a heck of an outcome for any accused.


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