Taos court hears testimony as sect leader seeks release

The Taos News/April 30, 2015

By Andrew Oxford

The leader of a Christian sect imprisoned six years ago for inappropriate sexual contact with an underage girl was back in court Tuesday (April 17) as he  continues a legal battle for freedom.

A lawyer representing Wayne Bent, 73, argued a videotaped interview with his victim establishes his innocence and sheds new light on the case.

In the video, recorded at attorney John McCall’s office in the presence of several of Bent’s followers, the woman expresses frustration with his treatment and maintains he did not touch her in a sexual manner.

Bent was charged with two counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor as well as two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in May 2008 following what he maintains were religious ceremonies in 2006 during which he lay with naked underage girls and placed his hands on them while praying.

The series of ceremonies were part of what was known as the “pouring out of the plagues” among members of the Lord of Our Righteousness Church, which Bent co-founded in 1987.

The church, based around a commune in Clayton, considers Bent a messiah.

During the ceremonies, which were part of carrying out the church’s interpretation of the Biblical book of Revelations, seven virgins or “messengers” lay with Bent.

Where, exactly, he laid his hands on them has been a matter of contention.

His victim, who was 16 years old at the time, maintains he placed his hand on her heart rather than breast.

But a jury found him guilty of criminal sexual contact following her testimony in 2008. Bent was acquitted of criminal sexual contact with her sister, who was 14 years old at the time of the incident.

Bent was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The interview was recorded in July 2010 as Bent’s case began a lengthy appeals process that led to the state’s supreme court.

The legal saga culminated with an unfavorable appeals court ruling in 2013.

McCall went on to file a writ of habeas corpus Oct. 20, which appears to be the first mention of the videotaped interview.

The writ of habeas corpus also claims Bent’s 10-year sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, pointing out arguably more egregious cases that resulted in much lighter sentences.

The filing also alleges Bent’s very prosecution violates his right to freedom of religion, the case amounting to punishment for conducting a religious ceremony.

Other claims in the writ of habeas corpus filed last were already argued in one form or another during the appeals process, though, such as claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and that the jury was given inaccurate instructions.

Higher courts rejected those claims and prosecutors argue the victim’s statement does not change anything, contending it is “nothing more than a simple recantation influenced by the people who were in the room with her.” The statement is “not significantly different from the testimony she gave at trial,” Eighth Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos wrote in a response to Bent’s writ of habeas corpus, arguing it is not grounds to overturn the verdict reached by a jury which heard evidence in the case.

“The majority of the statement … is about how bad she feels that [Bent] was sentenced to prison and that the ceremony that included the touching was of a religious and not a sexual nature,” the district attorney wrote. “It is important to note that present at the interview were members of the Lord of Our Righteousness Church which is the religious movement founded by [Bent]…”

The victim took the stand before Judge Abigail Aragon Monday, expressing much the same ambivalence and regret she voiced in the videotaped statement.

Recounting the ceremony with Bent, she described herself as a willing participant. “The reason was to get closer to God,” the woman said, characterizing it as a blessing.

The story of what happened did not really come out at trial, though, she maintained.

And as the aging spiritual leader watched on, wearing an orange prison uniform, the woman said she did not intend for Bent to land behind bars.

“I didn’t want him to be in jail. That’s not what I intended,” she said.

Monday’s hearing hearing was continued to a later date at which point the woman is expected to take the stand again.

As Bent waited to be ushered from the courtroom, several dozen followers who had been watching from the gallery gathered around quietly in the presence of their messiah.

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