NM court reinstates religious leader's convictions

Associated Press/October 22, 2012

Santa Fe, New Mexico - New Mexico's highest court on Monday reinstated the convictions of religious group leader Wayne Bent for sexual misconduct with teenage followers but more appeals remain in the case.

The state Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, which last year had tossed out Bent's convictions because the term of a grand jury had expired before it indicted Bent.

The Supreme Court said the grand jury dispute should have been resolved before Bent's trial in 2008. The case goes back to the appeals court to deal with other pending legal questions in Bent's challenge to his convictions.

The 71-year-old Bent is serving a 10-year sentence in a state prison in Los Lunas. He calls himself Michael Travesser and was a founder of The Lord Our Righteousness Church, whose followers live in a compound they call Strong City in a rural area in northeastern New Mexico.

Bent's son, Jeff, said the justices will be asked to reconsider their ruling.

"I find it incredible that the Supreme Court openly accepts that mistakes were made by the district court in my father's case, and yet conclude he has no remedy," Bent said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "They toss out the idea that a grand jury must be legally impaneled in accordance with law to hand down indictments, something I find appalling."

The elder Bent was accused of lying in bed with naked 14- and 16-year-old sisters in separate incidents in 2006. He and the girls testified that 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 — not the breasts — of the girls.

The Court of Appeals, after concluding that the grand jury indictment was invalid, did not consider other issues raised by Bent when he first challenged his convictions.

"The maxim 'justice delayed is justice denied' describes how I feel about the decision of the Supreme Court," said Jeff Bent. "My father's right to due process has been trampled on by the fact that after four years on appeal, he basically finds himself back at square one."

The Supreme Court said, "At this point in the proceedings — post-conviction — there is simply no adequate remedy available for defendant."

If Bent's indictment was invalidated, the court said, a new grand jury would likely find there is probable cause to indict Bent again and he would face a new trial.

"In short, reversal now, after a guilty verdict, would accomplish little because, based on this record, probable cause exists to bring these same charges against defendant," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Richard Bosson.

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