The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

First the jury convicted this 19-year-old maid for stealing. Then they took up a collection to pay her fine.

The trial seemed utterly ordinary. A 19-year-old maid swiped a woman’s three rings worth at least $5,000 from a house she was cleaning in Fairfax City, Va., but later returned them after the police questioned her. She was charged with felony grand larceny.

What the jury did was extraordinary. They felt bad for the young woman, pregnant with her second child, and agreed that she had made a dumb, youthful mistake. Reluctantly, they convicted her of the felony. But the fine they imposed was her daily pay as a maid, $60. And then they took up a collection and gave her the money to pay the fine.

“The general sentiment was she was a victim, too,” said the jury foreman, Jeffery Memmott. “Two of the women [jurors] were crying because of how bad they felt. One lady pulled out a $20 bill, and just about everybody chipped in.” Memmott then contacted the public defender in the case, and went to the home of Sandra Mendez Ortega. He gave her the jury’s collection, which totaled $80.

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“Justice had to be done,” said another juror, Janice Woolridge, explaining why the panel imposed a felony conviction. “But there’s also got be some compassion somewhere. Young people make bad decisions. We just couldn’t pile on any more.”

The two-day trial was held in July, but the sentencing was last Friday before Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Smith. Mendez Ortega’s lawyer, assistant public defender Michael C. Cash, asked the judge to defer the case and not enter a conviction or sentence in light of the defendant’s actions and the jury’s response. Smith declined, entered the conviction and imposed the $60 fine. Numerous veteran criminal lawyers, on both the prosecution and defense sides, said they had never heard of a case where a jury paid a defendant’s fine.

A happy holiday story, right? Well what if you’re the woman whose rings were stolen? Although she was not pleased when the jury returned from their deliberations with only a $60 fine for the felony conviction, crime victim Lisa Copeland was appalled when she learned that the jury had also paid the fine.

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“I just pray that they’re never in my shoes,” Copeland said. She said Mendez Ortega never accepted responsibility for the theft. “If she had accepted accountability, I would be okay with all of this. The fact that she won’t accept accountability makes it wrong.”

Copeland said Mendez Ortega told a lies from the start and then unfurled a tragic life story that  convinced the jury to impose a punishment of a $60 fine. “I was outraged,” Copeland said. “I was just flabbergasted. I didn’t think $60 equated to the crime at all.” She did not know the jury had taken up a collection for Mendez Ortega until she was contacted by a reporter.

The case began with Copeland’s discovery in September 2016 that her engagement and wedding rings were missing from the container where they were usually kept. The engagement ring had been her grandmother’s, made in 1943, and the two rings were appraised at $5,000 in 1996, Copeland said. Copeland didn’t realize a third, inexpensive ring had been taken until it was turned in.

Fairfax City police investigated and interviewed the three women who had cleaned the home. All three denied taking or seeing the rings, court records show, and no one was charged.

But after the interviews, Mendez Ortega reportedly felt bad about the theft, admitted to her boss that she had the rings and turned them over to him. The police were contacted and Mendez Ortega confessed to them as well, saying she returned the rings after learning they were valuable. The police had her write an apology letter to Copeland, in Spanish, which said in part, “Sorry for grabbing the rings. I don’t know what happened. I want you to forgive me.”

Copeland said she has never seen that letter, and that Mendez Ortega has never apologized to her in person. “Never saw it,” Copeland said. “Never heard about it until the trial, during sentencing.”

After she was arrested, Mendez Ortega spent eight days in jail until she was released on $1,000 bond. The jury was not told that. The jury also was not told that Mendez Ortega apparently is not in the country legally, as Copeland said she was told by prosecutors, because it was not relevant to whether she stole the rings. “I think it’s relevant to the case,” Copeland said. She said the penalties of a felony conviction, such as not being able to vote or buy a gun, would not be actions available to an immigrant in the country illegally anyway.

“It really irritates me that she came here and committed a felony,” said Jeff Copeland, Lisa Copeland’s husband. “People are coming here because there is opportunity here. But when they come here and commit crimes, that’s where you’ve got to draw the line.”

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At trial, the facts were not really in dispute. The jury did not hear from Mendez Ortega during the case in chief, but they were already sympathetic to her. “We didn’t feel she should have been tried and convicted,” said Memmott, the foreman. “We tried every way we could to find some way of not convicting her. But the legal standard was very clear.” Two other jurors agreed that the felony conviction was appropriate, given the facts and the law.

Lisa Copeland was amazed. “The fact that she confessed,” she said, “and they didn’t want to convict her? I don’t get this. That’s basically saying it’s okay to steal.”

Then during the sentencing phase, Mendez Ortega took the stand. She faced a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. She told the jury she had dropped out of school after sixth grade, that she first became pregnant at 15,  that she was pregnant again at 19 and had no job, according to court records.

“The whole time she was telling the sob story,” Lisa Copeland said, I looked at my husband and said, ‘I’ve heard enough of this.'” She noted that after Mendez Ortega took the rings, “she lied to the cops, she lied to her employers. She didn’t turn in the rings, she made somebody else do it. She confessed, but claimed that the rings were in the bathroom. And then she tried to blame her boss.”

When the jury went back to deliberate on a sentence, the jurors said they quickly agreed that no jail time was appropriate, and that only a small fine should be imposed. “We all came to the conclusion,” Memmott said, “we should fine her the amount she made for a day’s work.”

“We came up with the least we could do,” Woolridge said. “And then we decided we wanted to help her out. So we got some money together.”

“The degree of empathy that was shown by these citizens,” said a third juror who asked to remain nameless, “and the serious way everybody took their responsibility, was really remarkable.”

Memmott said he and his wife went to visit Mendez Ortega at her home in Falls Church. “We talked to her, offered to help her with anything we could,” Memmott said. “She declined.”

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Speaking through an interpreter, Mendez Ortega said after her sentencing, “I became happy when I heard they wanted to give me that” money. “Thank you very much to all of them, God bless them.”

Assistant Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Marcus N. Greene, had asked the jury to consider jail time for Mendez Ortega, and he argued against Cash’s motion that the verdict be deferred. He said the jury had considered the felony conviction to be part of the punishment and that Mendez Ortega did not return the rings until after being questioned by police. He declined to comment on the jury’s actions.

Cash, Mendez Ortega’s lawyer, said he was “thrilled that the jury felt sympathy for my client and that they took it upon themselves to help despite finding her guilty. I think the jury saw this case for what it was: a teenager who had never been in trouble before who made a really bad decision, but then tried to make it right when her conscience got the better of her.”

Jeff Copeland said, “The punishment was she didn’t get paid for the day she stole from us. But then she did get paid for it. That’s changed my whole view of it.”

“She made $20 out of it, too,” Lisa Copeland added.