YUMA, Ariz. (AP) — Sentencing for two southwestern Arizona women who pleaded guilty to illegally collecting early ballots in the 2020 primary election was delayed on Thursday because one of their lawyers had a death in the family.
That means they will have to wait a month to see if they will do jail time, as the judge in the case has indicated is likely.
Prosecutors are seeking a one-year prison sentence for one of the women, Guillermina Fuentes, a school board member and former mayor in the border city of San Luis. Fuentes pleaded guilty to a felony violation of Arizona’s “ballot harvesting” law, which bars anyone but a person’s relative, housemate or caregiver from returning ballots for them.
Alma Juarez pleaded guilty to the same charge, but it was designated as a misdemeanor after she agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Her agreement calls for a sentence of probation. She carried four ballots Fuentes gave her into a polling place and dropped them off.
Prosecutors with the Arizona Attorney General’s office alleged in court papers that Fuentes ran a sophisticated operation using her status in Democratic politics in San Luis to persuade voters to let her gather and, in some cases, fill out their ballots.
But the crime she admitted in court last month does not involve filling out ballots or any broader efforts. The state’s sentencing recommendation memo makes no mention of that earlier allegation of a larger operation.
The probation department is recommending that Fuentes also be sentenced to probation.
Yuma County Superior Court Judge Roger Nelson’s assistant has told attorneys in the case in an email that he intends “to give them 30 days in jail,” even though Juarez’ plea agreement says he will get probation. Nelson granted delays for both women on Thursday.
They will now appear on Oct. 6 for a mitigation hearing, and Nelson said he would set a new sentencing hearing after that.
Lawyers for Fuentes plan to call several witnesses at that hearing in an effort to show she should not get jail time. The attorney for Juarez has filed a memo with the court that outlines his arguments for why she should not be jailed.
They noted that she is pregnant and that when Fuentes handed her the ballots she was “totally unaware,” that what she was doing was illegal.
Juarez already has four children. Her oldest son, who was born in 1999, died of a heart attack this year due to a congenital heart defect, and she has two young children who are autistic that she cares for.
Lawyers for Fuentes had previously sought a delay because two witnesses she wanted to call during a pre-sentencing mitigation hearing were unavailable and one of her attorneys was unavailable, but Nelson refused. That decision was appealed, but the Arizona Court of Appeals declined to consider the case.
This week, a family member of Fuentes’ Yuma attorney died and funeral services are set for Thursday and Friday, prompting a new request to delay sentencing.
Since the plea Juarez entered required her to cooperate in the state prosecution of Fuentes, her attorney and the prosecutor agreed her sentencing should also be delayed.