Prejudicial Comments by Judge – Montana Woman Gets New Trial

Linda Faye Harris

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. 

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Plains MT woman pleads guilty to stealing more than $250,000, sentenced to 5 years


A Plains woman who admitted to embezzling more than a quarter-million dollars from a local dental clinic was sentenced Friday to 30 years with 25 suspended in the Montana Department of Corrections.

Dorothea P. Knudson, 45, of Plains, pleaded guilty to theft by embezzlement, deceptive practices and theft by insurance fraud in Ravalli County District Court in May.

She was sentenced to 10 years with five suspended for embezzlement, 10 years suspend for deceptive practices and 10 years suspended for insurance fraud, to run consecutively.

Ravalli County District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton recommended that the time Knudson is incarcerated be spent in a pre-release center so she could continue paying restitution.

After sentencing, Deputy County Attorney William Fulbright was disappointed at what he called “a slap on the wrist.”

“I’m disappointed that a bookkeeper can steal $250,000, and not set foot in prison,” he said in a prepared statement.

Fulbright argued for a Montana State Prison commitment for 10 years for the first charge, five years suspended for the second and 10 years with five suspended for the third count.

“This sentence is clearly driven by the (Montana State Prison) Sentence Review Board’s prior intervention in the sentencing of the Teller Wildlife Refuge and Specialty Woodworks embezzlers,” Fulbright said. It is unfortunate that this virtually unknown institution, not subject to review, has taken away discretion our district court should feel to sentence appropriately. The Sentence Review Board has again sent the message that white-collar crime pays in Montana.”

In two recent Ravalli County embezzlement cases, the board knocked down hefty prison sentences in favor of a few years of probation for convicted felons.

The defendant argued for 20 years in the Montana Department of Corrections with 18 years suspended, including participation in the adult probation intensive supervision program.

From March 1994 to July 2003 Knudson stole $228,000 from her employers’ checking account by thieving cash paid by patients and through unauthorized use of business credit cards. Knudson worked as an office manager for East Side Dental Clinic in Florence.

Knudson tricked the dental clinic’s owners into writing her 185 checks worth more than $163,500. Knudson also filed a number of fraudulent insurance claims worth $35,836.

Langton ordered Knudson to pay $228,861 in restitution to the owners of the dental practice. He also ordered her to pay the remaining $1,140 to the Delta Dental Insurance Company.

Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright recommended 25 years with 10 years suspended, saying Knudson exploited a trusting friendship with the Laceys, who own the business.

While this was going on the Laceys were struggling, yet she kept doing it,” he said.

Sandy Lacey testified Knudson was a supportive friend to her when her mother passed away, offering a shoulder to cry on. Yet that same week she took thousands of dollars from the business.

“I don’t want her to pay us back by doing this to someone else,” Lacey said. She added that while they were struggling to makes ends meet living in a 1,000-square-foot apartment, Knudson and her family were living a fancy lifestyle in a nice big house.

Lacey said Knudson was taking $2,500 to $5,500 a month from the practice.

It took hundreds of hours over the last three years for the Laceys to go through their records from the dental clinic to figure out what items were fraudulent and what was valid.

Knudson was initially charged with two counts of theft by embezzlement, theft by deception and forgery, all felonies, but a May 24 plea agreement amended the charges.

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Montana woman pleads guilty to embezzling from dental firm


GREAT FALLS – A Great Falls woman accused of embezzling more than $200,000 from a dentist’s office here pleaded guilty Monday in federal court.

Connie Jo Jensen, 37, entered her plea to bank and credit card fraud before U.S. Magistrate Keith Strong.

Jensen, a former Family Dental Center employee, is accused of using a credit card and blank checks to steal from the practice at a rate of $5,250 per month from January 2004 to March 2007.

She was fired in March, when a private audit uncovered the losses.

 Jensen began working for Family Dental Center in February 1999 and became office manager in August 2003, authorities said.

Questionable charges began appearing on the business’ credit card accounts as early as February 2003, and the audit conducted in March and April turned up a loss to the business of $204,670, court records said.

Jensen allegedly used two methods to steal from her employer. Authorities say she used an office credit card to get cash advances or make personal purchases, and she used blank checks signed by the dentist to pay personal bills, get cash or make personal purchases.

At the hearing, Jensen did not indicate why she took the money. She has been released from jail on conditions; she was sentenced to 40 months in prison.

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Content retrieved from Great Falls woman pleads guilty to embezzling from dental firmPosted on Aug. 21 | Montana & Regional |