Judge Lidyard won’t recuse himself from embezzlement case

Judge Jason Lidyard listens to attorney James Plummer in court in Tierra Amarilla in May. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

State District Judge Jason Lidyardhas denied a motion by the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office asking him to recuse himself from an embezzlement case and accused prosecutors of “judge shopping.”

Lidyard had turned down a plea deal that called for Henrietta Trujillo, a former financial director at Northern New Mexico College, to pay back nearly $82,000 she admitted stealing from the school, plus more than $4,000 in taxes on the money, over the next five years in exchange for no jail time — unless she violated the terms of her probation.

Trujillo, 63, faces a felony count of embezzlement and is accused of stealing cash and checks between August 2012 and December 2017. A New Mexico State Police report on the case said college officials initially reported they couldn’t account for about $200,000 in Trujillo’s office.

Following a Sept. 16 hearing on the plea deal in his courtroom in Tierra Amarilla, Lidyard told The New Mexican the deal didn’t seem fair, considering defendants convicted of shoplifting items of far less value sometimes end up behind bars.

Lidyard said he “saw an inequity in the type of resolution that was being requested,” which echoed comments he’d made in open court that day.

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On Sept. 20, Assistant District Attorney Ihsan Ahmed filed a motion asking Lidyard to recuse himself based on remarks the judge had made in the phone interview with the newspaper. The motion cited a rule requiring judges not to make public or private statements that would jeopardize a fair trial. Ahmed wrote that Lidyard’s statement to The New Mexican “may reasonably affect the outcome or impair the fairness” of Trujillo’s case, but he didn’t specify how.

Ahmed had filed a motion Sept. 16 seeking to exercise his right to excuse Lidyard from the case but withdrew it the same day.

Lidyard wrote in his decision on the Sept. 20 motion that it was “conclusive evidence that the State wanted to remove this Judge regardless of the statements contained in the newspaper article.” He went on to say the true motivation for the motion was the “desire to obtain another judge” willing to accept the plea deal.

Henry Varela, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said the office had no comment on Lidyard’s decision.

“But we will be exploring our options,” Varela wrote in an email.

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(4) comments

Dr. Michael Johnson

How refreshing and encouraging that there is a judge in this part of the state that will not cave in to left wing/socialist, soft on crime DAs want to force. Maybe justice will be done here, thank you Judge!

Chris Mechels

"Judge shopping" has become a common feature for cases brought by both the District One DA and the Attorney General (the Richard Martinez case). This undermines the whole judicial system, in service to a desired outcome; "justice" seems to mean nothing to these prosecutors. Trial by a jury "of your peers" before an "impartial" judge has become a joke in New Mexico. But of course we have become a joke, the worst governed state in the union, because our judicial system does not respect the law. The Attorney General is a big part of this problem, and thwarts any solution. I have him on record violating OMA, IPRA, and the NM Rules Act, but nobody cares; certainly not the Legislature or the New Mexican.

Sojourner of Truth

Ninety to ninety-five percent of all inmates in prison took a "deal" negotiated by the prosecution and defense attorneys. These "deals" are routinely rubber-stamped by trial judges, so kudos to Judge Lidyard for shining a light on this practice and requiring the prosecution to support its peculiar position with a rational argument for such a lenient sentence. Perhaps it is time to look at the entire practice of making "deals" with defendants and mandating routine public disclosure.

Janet Arrowsmith

I certainly agree with the judge that there is no uniformity or predictability about sentencing. I don't know if it's different than other states but I have been struck by the fact that a young man whose inappropriate use of speed in palatka that resulted in two deaths was given 6 years in prison while others with much lesser crimes received far more time in prison. I don't understand how some of the sentencing is reasoned out. It does seem, however, that oftentimes the more prominent the person's position in public, the less time they serve.

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