The Taos County District Court building, as well as nearby administrative buildings, were evacuated for a short time Tuesday afternoon due to what officials called “a credible threat” against the judge who denied a detention motion for the adults arrested at a northern New Mexico compound earlier this month.
Barry Massey, communications officer for the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, said a caller to the courthouse referenced Judge Sarah Backus specifically when he said her “throat would be slit.” Another caller said, “she wishes someone would come and smash the judge’s heard,” officials say.
The threats of violence come one day after the major and controversial decision by Backus not to detain most of the suspects arrested on child abuse charges in Taos County, a spokesperson for the New Mexico courts system says initial displeasure has evolved into threats.
Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, emphasized in a Tuesday release that “Judge Sarah Backus carried out her responsibility on Monday” with her ruling. Backus has “come under attack” via social media, telephone calls and email messages, Pepin said.
“However, the judge’s responsibility is to fairly and impartially apply the law and make a decision based on the evidence presented to the court,” Pepin said. “A judge’s responsibility is to follow the law—not popular sentiment that may develop from incomplete or misleading information.”
Backus’s decision on Monday came after several hours of testimony from state prosecutors, defense attorneys and several key figures in the investigation, including Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe and an FBI agent. Siraj Wahhaj, Lucas Morton, Hujrah Wahhaj, Jany Leveille and Subhannah Wahhaj each face 11 counts of child abuse.
Prosecutors attempted to make the case that the Muslim adults were training 11 young children found at the compound to carry out attacks against institutions, pointing to the guns found in searches of the compound as well as books on how to make homemade firearms.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, said a double standard was at play, asserting that the occupants were more or less cooperative as the compound was being raided. They told Backus in court that if the defendants were white, Christian and armed, “we might not be here today.”
Before announcing her denial of the state’s pretrial detention motion, Backus said she expected to hear much more about the conditions of the children, now in foster care with the Children, Youth and Families Department.
The decision was followed by near-unanimous uproar on social media, with some comments specifically calling for Backus’s removal or even for her to be disbarred.
“The state Constitution provides that criminal defendants may be detained in jail pretrial only if prosecutors show by clear and convincing evidence that they are so dangerous that no release conditions will reasonably protect public safety,” Pepin said.
Backus said Monday that the state did not meet the burden of proving that suspects were a danger to the community.
Most of them were expected to be released on Tuesday. As part of their conditions of release, they will have to wear ankle monitors, be supervised during any visits with the children and they won’t be allowed to leave the country.
If any of those conditions are violated, or if they don’t show up for trial, they will have to pay a $20,000 signature bond.
State Police are looking into the threats against Backus. Meanwhile, one of the evacuees in Taos said she’s been experiencing mixed emotions.
“But what I’ve seen in the community is a lot of anger over the issue and anger that scares me with how people are reacting,” said Jill Kline, a Taos community advocate. “I mean, I’m seeing things that look like responses of vigilante justice that simply aren’t going to solve the problem.”
Officials gave an all-clear around 5:20 p.m., a few hours after beginning a lockdown procedure.
There’s no word yet on when any of the five suspects will actually be out of jail or if court is planning to be back open for business on Wednesday. According to the Taos County Sheriff’s Department, immigration authorities have arrested Leveille, who is from Haiti.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
August 15th, 2018