Santa Fe, New Mexico - The state Court of Appeals on Tuesday tossed out the convictions of a religious group's leader who had been found guilty of sexual misconduct with teenage followers.
The court ruled a grand jury's term had expired months before it returned an indictment against Wayne Bent and that a district judge didn't have the power to extend its term. A three-judge panel of the court ordered the case back to district court and said the 70-year-old Bent is to be released from custody.
The court left open the option that charges could be refiled.
Bent was sentenced in 2008 to 10 years in prison for criminal sexual contact with a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He has been in a state prison in Los Lunas, and a spokesman for the Corrections Department said it's uncertain when he would be released. The department must receive a court order.
Prosecutors could ask the state Supreme Court to review the ruling, but Bent's lawyer, John McCall, said it's possible that his client could be released from prison pending any further appeal.
A spokesman for Attorney General Gary King said the office will review the court's ruling and then make a decision on what to do next in the case.
Bent, who calls himself Michael Travesser, is the leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church. Its followers live in a compound they call Strong City in a rural area near the community of Clayton, close to the New Mexico-Colorado border.
Bent's son, Jeff, said, "I do hope that this results in him coming home very soon. I think that's where he belongs."
He said his father ended an 18-month fast in March and was force-fed a liquid diet under a court order.
"His health has been holding out fairly well considering the circumstances," he said in a telephone interview.
The court said the term of the grand jury expired in January 2008, and there was no provision in state law for extending that. Bent was indicted in May 2008.
"As a result, the indictment issued by the grand jury was void and the district court did not have jurisdiction to proceed with the trial in this case," the court said in an opinion by Judge Roderick T. Kennedy.
Bent was a minister for the Seventh-day Adventist Church but separated from it more than 20 years ago. He claims God spoke to him in 2000 and told him he was the Messiah.
A jury convicted Bent of the felonies for lying in bed with naked 14- and 16-year-old sisters in separate incidents in 2006.
Bent and the sisters testified the incidents were spiritual exercises and nothing happened sexually. The teens said Bent did not touch intimate areas, and Bent testified he had placed his hands on the sternums, but not the breasts, of the girls.