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December 15, 2017

Remarkable story of jury sentencing, jury actions and a victim's response from Virginia

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this remarkable story from Virginia as reported in the Washington Post under the headline "First the jury convicted this 19-year-old maid for stealing. Then they took up a collection to pay her fine." Here are highlights:

After she was arrested, Mendez Ortega spent eight days in jail until she was released on $1,000 bond . The jury was not told that.  The jury also was not told that Mendez Ortega apparently is not in the country legally, as Copeland said she was told by prosecutors, because it was not relevant to whether she stole the rings.  “I think it’s relevant to the case,” Copeland said.  She said the penalties of a felony conviction, such as not being able to vote or buy a gun, would not be actions available to an immigrant in the country illegally anyway....

The trial seemed utterly ordinary.  A 19-year-old maid swiped a woman’s three rings worth at least $5,000 from a house she was cleaning in Fairfax City, Va., but later returned them after the police questioned her.  She was charged with felony grand larceny.

What the jury did was extraordinary.  They felt bad for the young woman, pregnant with her second child, and agreed that she had made a dumb, youthful mistake. Reluctantly, they convicted her of the felony.  But the fine they imposed was her daily pay as a maid, $60. And then they took up a collection and gave her the money to pay the fine.

“The general sentiment was she was a victim, too,” said the jury foreman, Jeffery Memmott. “Two of the women [jurors] were crying because of how bad they felt.  One lady pulled out a $20 bill, and just about everybody chipped in.”  Memmott then contacted the public defender in the case, and went to the home of Sandra Mendez Ortega. He gave her the jury’s collection, which totaled $80....

The two-day trial was held in July, but the sentencing was last Friday before Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Smith.  Mendez Ortega’s lawyer, assistant public defender Michael C. Cash, asked the judge to defer the case and not enter a conviction or sentence in light of the defendant’s actions and the jury’s response.  Smith declined, entered the conviction and imposed the $60 fine.  Numerous veteran criminal lawyers, on both the prosecution and defense sides, said they had never heard of a case where a jury paid a defendant’s fine.

A happy holiday story, right?  Well what if you’re the woman whose rings were stolen?  Although she was not pleased when the jury returned from their deliberations with only a $60 fine for the felony conviction, crime victim Lisa Copeland was appalled when she learned that the jury had also paid the fine.  “I just pray that they’re never in my shoes,” Copeland said. She said Mendez Ortega never accepted responsibility for the theft.  “If she had accepted accountability, I would be okay with all of this.  The fact that she won’t accept accountability makes it wrong.”

Copeland said Mendez Ortega told a series of lies from the start, and then unfurled a tragic life story that convinced the jury to impose a punishment of a $60 fine.  “I was outraged,” Copeland said.  “I was just flabbergasted. I didn’t think $60 equated to the crime at all.” She did not know the jury had taken up a collection for Mendez Ortega until she was contacted by a reporter.

The case began with Copeland’s discovery in September 2016 that her engagement and wedding rings were missing from the container where they were usually kept.  The engagement ring had been her grandmother’s, made in 1943, and the two rings were appraised at $5,000 in 1996, Copeland said.  Copeland didn’t realize a third, inexpensive ring had been taken until it was turned in.... 

At trial, the facts were not really in dispute. The jury did not hear from Mendez Ortega during the case in chief, but they were already sympathetic to her. “We didn’t feel she should have been tried and convicted,” said Memmott, the foreman. “We tried every way we could to find some way of not convicting her.  But the legal standard was very clear.”  Two other jurors agreed that the felony conviction was appropriate, given the facts and the law.  Lisa Copeland was amazed. “The fact that she confessed,” she said, “and they didn’t want to convict her?  I don’t get this. That’s basically saying it’s okay to steal.”

Then during the sentencing phase, Mendez Ortega took the stand.  She faced a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.  She told the jury she had dropped out of school after sixth grade, that she first became pregnant at 15, that she was pregnant again at 19 and had no job, according to court records. “The whole time she was telling the sob story,” Lisa Copeland said, I looked at my husband and said, ‘I’ve heard enough of this.'”  She noted that after Mendez Ortega took the rings, “she lied to the cops, she lied to her employers.  She didn’t turn in the rings, she made somebody else do it.  She confessed, but claimed that the rings were in the bathroom.  And then she tried to blame her boss.”

When the jury went back to deliberate on a sentence, the jurors said they quickly agreed that no jail time was appropriate, and that only a small fine should be imposed. “We all came to the conclusion,” Memmott said, “we should fine her the amount she made for a day’s work.”...  “The degree of empathy that was shown by these citizens,” said a third juror who asked to remain nameless, “and the serious way everybody took their responsibility, was really remarkable.”

Remarkable is the word I would attach to every part of this story, while also noting that this would only be possible in a jurisdiction like Virginia that includes a system of jury sentencing. Interestingly, this story does not speak to whether or how the victim here spoke during the trial/sentencing proceedings.  I am pretty sure victims in Virginia have a right to speak at sentencing, and I wonder if this now-aggrieved victim is upset in part because she did not exercise that right.

December 15, 2017 at 04:20 PM | Permalink


Conclusion of story? Registered Democrats will always side with the enemies of our country.

Defendant needs to be deported before her spawn is born in our country. If that is allowed, the loss will not be in the $thousands, but in the $millions.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 15, 2017 8:07:10 PM

Any voir dire without asking about party registration is lawyer malpractice.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 16, 2017 12:24:04 AM

No jail !

Immediately deport her !

Posted by: Docile the Kind Soul | Dec 16, 2017 1:33:53 AM

She needs to be deported now.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 16, 2017 7:19:54 AM

I recall a report about 20 years ago that a survey was taken among people who attended the OJ Simpson criminal trial daily (and thus heard the whole thing) and people who got all of their information about the trial from the news media. Trial attendees were 80-20 in favor of acquittal and news media consumers were 80-20 in favor of conviction. The comments here remind me of that. The jury's reaction came from people who heard the whole thing. The labeling of the 19-year old as an "enemy" of America and the call for immediate deportation comes from people who, like me, only know about the two-day trial from a few paragraphs of a news story.

I am a conservative, but I confess to volunteering in the local Salvation Army summer lunch program. Our youthful customers are probably 40% Hispanic (we have a lot of migrant agricultural labor in the county). Their families are poor, but the kids are well scrubbed and wear clean clothes, and are polite (especially compared to the universe of our clients). The older siblings take care of the younger ones to an extent that I have never seen among another socioeconomic or ethnic group.

The notion that these kids should be labeled as somebody's "spawn" is very troubling. They are people, are children, and have as much value as any kids anywhere. Avoiding use of the denigrating label does not make me a Democrat. Gratuitous insults of the kids does not make anyone a Republican.

Posted by: Tom Root | Dec 16, 2017 7:44:02 AM

"Avoiding use of the denigrating label does not make me a Democrat. Gratuitous insults of the kids does not make anyone a Republican."

Correct. It makes you a weenie in both parties.

Posted by: Selfie Man | Dec 16, 2017 11:47:05 AM

Tom. I understand your view. To avoid pointless arguing, we need the home address. We are sending the defendant to.your home, to do cleaning. Send me the bill for cleaning. Is that OK?

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 16, 2017 11:59:56 AM

Tom, if you're new here, you might not know that Behar is merely a caricature, not an actual human being. He's generally ignored.

Posted by: Mark M. | Dec 17, 2017 12:54:41 AM

Mark. Are you a lawyer? If you are, you are in denial.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 17, 2017 12:23:12 PM

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