Republican legislators from Rio Rancho are calling for a judge to resign after he sentenced a drunken driver who killed two people to three years in prison.
Christie Noriega, 32, pleaded guilty in September to two counts of vehicular homicide and aggravated driving while intoxicated in the deaths of Lonny Escovedo, 28, and Michael Chambellan, 21. She was facing up to 30 years in prison.
In early March, she was heading southbound on Interstate 25 near Algodones when she crashed into the two men, who were changing a flat tire on Escovedo’s car. The men died at the scene.
Noriega’s 2-year-old son was in her car but was not injured.
On Friday, 13th Judicial District Judge Louis McDonald sentenced her to 30 years in prison, but suspended all but three years. Following the three years, Noriega will be on supervised probation for five years and could be ordered to serve her full sentence if she violates probation.
“This goes beyond unacceptable, is a dereliction of duty and shows a complete lack of judgment,” Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said in a news release Monday. “It’s decisions like this one that erode confidence in the criminal justice system in New Mexico. Judge McDonald should resign.”
Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, and Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, are joining Harper in the calls for McDonald’s resignation.
The judge was not immediately available for comment late Monday, and a court administrator said he would be able to provide more information about the sentencing today.
Noriega’s defense attorney, Steve Aarons, said he thought the call for McDonald’s resignation was “horrible.”
“I can say that it’s unfortunate that people are judging a very seasoned district court judge without having all of the facts that he had,” Aarons said.
He said there were many factors that led to Judge McDonald sentencing his client to three years, including recommendations from the New Mexico Corrections Department and Noriega’s lack of a criminal or DWI history.
Noriega underwent a 60-day diagnostic at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in the fall and a psychologist wrote that “it is likely best for all involved that any incarceration that might be felt appropriate to be as short in total time as possible.”
The diagnostic, according to Aarons, states that Noriega “does not appear to have any significant substance use disorders” and although she did drink alcohol the day she crashed into Chambellan and Escovedo “she did not make impulsive or reckless decisions about her alcohol use on that day.”
Aarons said Noriega has a nonalcoholic fatty liver disease that prevents her body from absorbing and eliminating alcohol.
Media reports zeroed in on the disease and highlighted the judge’s questions about whether the corrections department could handle her care.
Aarons, however, said there was a lot more that went into the sentencing decision.
“I really think its her lack of history,” he said. “Even the Corrections Department recommended the least amount of time possible.”
He added that the victims had also parked in an area just a couple of feet from the traveling lane and had a door open.
Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal (reprinted with permission)
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