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Court Reinstates Cult Leader’s Convictions

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The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the conviction of messianic leader Wayne Bent, saying that even though his sex crimes indictment was flawed, the remedy cannot be a new trial.

“At this point in the proceedings – post conviction – there is simply no adequate remedy available for (the) defendant,” the court said.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to decide questions it hadn’t decided when it overturned Bent’s conviction based on the grand jury issue.

In its June 2011 opinion, the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, agreeing with Bent’s defense that the grand jury had no authority to act at the time it returned the indictment, because it was long past the 90 days of its authority.

But Bent, whose arrest made national headlines, was not released while the Supreme Court had the case under consideration. The Appeals Court gave no reason for denying his release pending the state’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

For a time, based on a court order, Bent was fed a liquid diet by a feeding tube after refusing to eat while locked up at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility.

“Legally speaking, there was no grand jury convened in this case,” Appeals Court Judge Roderick Kennedy wrote in the 2011 opinion.

Justice Richard Bosson, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, however, said quashing the indictment at this point in the case would likely mean a needless do-over of the indictment and trial.

“In short, reversal now, after a guilty verdict, would accomplish little because, based on this record, probable cause exists to bring these same charges against (Bent),” the opinion says. Probable cause, required to file a charge, is a much lower standard of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt, required for a conviction.

Bent, 71, also known as Michael Travesser, was the leader of a religious community in northeastern New Mexico called the Strong City compound. He was charged with criminal sexual contact with minors based on ceremonies he claimed were cleansing ceremonies, convicted in a jury trial in Taos in 2008 and sentenced to 10 years.

Bent claims God spoke to him in 2000 and told him he was the messiah.

He was accused of lying in bed with naked 14- and 16-year-old sisters in separate incidents in 2006. He and the girls testified that the incidents were spiritual exercises and that nothing happened sexually.

The Supreme Court said the court clerk for the 8th Judicial District, which includes Taos, Colfax and Union counties, sent grand jury summonses to 125 Union County residents ordering them to report to the courthouse on Nov. 13, 2007.

“The record is unclear what happened that day,” the Supreme Court opinion says.

Defense and prosecution agreed that the grand jury judge, Sam Sanchez, orally extended the grand jury’s term for three more months. (Sanchez in 2009 was permanently banned from the bench for abuse of powers based on an unrelated incident.)

But the grand jury didn’t meet again until May 2008, when it heard evidence against Bent and issued the indictment.

According to calculations by Bent’s defense, “the grand jury had no authority even to convene, much less indict, as of that date,” the Supreme Court said.

The Court of Appeals, after concluding that the grand jury indictment was invalid, did not consider other issues raised by Bent when he first challenged his convictions.

“The maxim ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ describes how I feel about the decision of the Supreme Court,” Bent’s son, Jeff Bent, said in an email to The Associated Press. “My father’s right to due process has been trampled on by the fact that after four years on appeal, he basically finds himself back at square one.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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