AP NEWS

Embezzlement conviction overturned due to lack of fair trial

February 28, 2020 GMT

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court has overturned a Missoula woman’s conviction for two counts of embezzlement after prosecutors conceded her constitutional rights were violated in the proceedings before District Judge Dusty Deschamps.

Linda Faye Harris, 61, appealed her convictions on several grounds, including the fact that the judge told her he believed she was guilty of one count before her bench trial started.

When the latest charges were filed, Harris was serving the suspended portion of a 10-year sentence Deschamps handed down in 2010 after Harris was convicted of stealing $180,000 from a Missoula architectural firm.

Harris initially pleaded no contest — meaning she did not admit guilt but agreed prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction — to two counts of theft by embezzlement in April 2017 and asked for a restitution hearing.

She had been charged with stealing $34,000 from two businesses, the Missoulian reported. However, during the hearing she suggested other people were responsible for the theft, leading Deschamps to ask if she wanted to instead go to trial.

Harris withdrew her no contest plea and requested a trial to be decided by a judge, but never waived her right to a jury trial.

Prosecutors sought to present the state’s evidence against Harris at the trial, but Deschamps said he would instead rely on testimony provided at the restitution hearing.

Deschamps also stated he had already concluded that Harris was guilty of one of the theft charges based on testimony from the restitution hearing. However, he acknowledged that the conclusion was “probably premature,” justices wrote in their 5-0 order Tuesday.

Harris was sentenced to 20 years in prison with 15 years suspended to run consecutive to an eight-year revoked sentence from the earlier embezzlement case.

During the sentencing hearing, Deschamps said crimes such as embezzlement are “women’s crimes,” that women who embezzle are serial offenders and that the Department of Corrections needed to take that into consideration when making parole determinations, the justices wrote.

Harris argued the judge violated her due process rights by using her gender as a consideration in sentencing. She asked that the case be referred to a different judge.

Prosecutors agreed that Harris did not waive her right to a jury trial and that Deschamps prejudged the case. The state and the Supreme Court did not address the gender sentencing issue, but justices ordered the case to be assigned to a different judge.