Judge in New Mexico compound case announces retirement

January 9, 2019
FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2018 file photo, District Court Judge Sarah C. Backus presides over the hearing in the Amalia, N.M., desert compound case in Taos, N.M. Backus who faced threats for allowing the release pending trial of suspects charged with child abuse at a ramshackle compound has announced her retirement. In a statement Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, Backus said she was honored to serve as judge in a district that includes Taos County, and noted her "controversial ruling" in August that cleared the way for the compound suspects' release. (Roberto E. Rosales/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)

TAOS, N.M. (AP) — A judge who faced threats for approving the release pending trial of suspects charged with child abuse at a New Mexico compound has announced her retirement, court officials said Tuesday.

Judge Sarah Backus submitted her resignation letter Friday, and she intends to retire at the end of next month. In a statement Tuesday, she said she was honored to serve as judge in a district that includes Taos County, and noted her “controversial ruling” last year that approved the release of four suspects accused of child abuse in the compound case.

A fifth suspect in the group — the father of a severely disabled boy who was reported missing from Georgia and later found dead at the ramshackle compound — was not among those who the judge’s order cleared for release at the time because an arrest warrant has been issued for him in that state. All five were later placed in federal custody on separate charges.

“It has been a great honor to serve the people of the Eighth Judicial for the past seven and one half years,” Backus wrote. “I appreciate their support and confidence in me, especially after my controversial ruling last August.”

Backus did not provide a reason for her retirement in her statement Tuesday or in a resignation letter obtained by The Associated Press.

In August, the search for a Georgia boy with severe disabilities led authorities to raid the compound outside Amalia where they found 11 hungry children living in filth, a dirt tunnel, arms and ammunition. The body of the missing boy was found days later in a second search, with authorities saying he had been denied medication for seizures.

Jany Leveille — who performed hour-long prayer rituals over the boy with his father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj — had rejected medication, believing it suppressed the group’s Muslim beliefs, authorities said.

Prosecutors pushing for the group to remain jailed had argued that the adult residents of the compound — all members of an extended family — were training their children in the high desert of Taos County to use firearms for an anti-government mission, though in state court the charges against them stemmed from allegations of child abuse.

Backus had said prosecutors had failed to provide evidence backing up key allegations and articulate any specific threats or plan against the community.

She also said her decision stemmed from recent changes within the state’s criminal justice system that set a high bar for incriminating evidence needed to hold suspects without bail. That decision prompted criticism from prominent Republican state officials, including then-Gov. Susana Martinez, and drew threats of violence via social media, email and telephone.

One caller to the district court in Taos made a death threat, said a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Backus said she had heard thousands of cases during her career, and she always sought to treat people equally under the law.


This story corrects a previous version to say Backus will retire at the end of February, not January.

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