The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a Missoula woman's two embezzlement convictions based on a few key factors, among them a state prosecutor's concession she is entitled to a new trial.
Linda Faye Harris, 61, will also appear before a new judge following Tuesday's order. In her appeal, Harris argued the judge presiding over her case showed bias when he was open about both prematurely considering her guilty and surmising women to be more often guilty of embezzlement than men.
"It's women that commit this crime most of the time," District Judge Robert "Dusty" Deschamps III said, according to the transcripts from the January 2018 sentencing hearing included in court filings. "And they commit it big time. And it seems like once they start doing it, they just keep coming back. And she's evidence of that pattern."
Harris was convicted in a bench trial in 2017 on two counts of felony theft by embezzlement for taking $9,493 from Gentle Dental and $24,890 from Northwest Denture Center.
Harris initially pleaded no contest to both charges. After hearing evidence presented at a restitution hearing, however, Deschamps asked Harris if she'd like to withdraw the pleas and challenge the charges at trial. She agreed, and Deschamps set the case for a bench trial.
Supreme Court Justices noted in their order, filed on Feb. 25, that Deschamps never asked Harris if she was waiving her right to a jury trial. Additionally, he had declined prosecutors' attempts to reintroduce evidence heard at the earlier restitution hearing, instead deciding to refer back to the testimony from the restitution hearing, justices wrote. Based on that testimony, Deschamps told Harris he was already mulling a guilty verdict on one count before the bench trial had concluded.
When Deschamps convicted Harris on both counts, sentencing her to 20 years in state prison with 15 years suspended, he set the sentence to run consecutively with a previous sentence for an earlier embezzlement, a $180,000 theft for which she was serving a suspended sentence when the new charges came along.
Harris' attorneys argued in her appeal that Deschamps had imposed an illegal sentence because it was based, at least in part, on her gender. According to court filings that include parts of the transcript from Harris' sentencing hearing, Deschamps had deemed embezzlement charges to be "women's crimes."
"... And I just think prison authorities and the Department of Corrections need to take that into consideration when releasing these people on parole. They're serial offenders."
Harris' attorneys argued in their August 1, 2019, opening brief that Deschamps' statements warranted at least a new sentencing before a different judge.
Assistant Attorney General Brad Fjeldheim conceded in a Feb. 20 filing that Harris is entitled to a new trial before a new judge because she had not waived her right to a jury trial. Additionally, Fjeldheim wrote, Deschamps should not have relied on testimony from the restitution hearing during Harris' bench trial.