Compassion! Crime! Betrayal! Law vs. Ethics! Illegal Aliens! Christmas Spirit! The Golden Rule! Five Golden Rings! (Okay, Only Three Rings, And One Was Junk, But Still…) The ‘Awwwww Factor’! Could This Be “The Greatest Ethics Quiz Ever Asked”?

[Special thanks to my friend (and the inventor of The Three Circles) lawyer/legal ethicist John May for alerting Ethics Alarms to this one.]

Sandra Mendez Ortega, a 19-year-old maid, stole three rings worth at least $5,000 from a house she was cleaning in Fairfax City, Virginia. Lisa Copeland, the client of the cleaning service, discovered her engagement and wedding rings were missing from the container where they were usually kept. The two rings were appraised at $5,000 in 1996, and a third less valuable ring was taken along with them. Fairfax City police  interviewed the three women who had cleaned the home, and they all denied seeing the rings, much less stealing them. Ortega, however, subsequently had second thoughts, and confessed to the theft. She told her boss that she had the rings and turned them over to him. He contacted the police,   Mendez Ortega confessed to them as well, saying she returned the rings after learning they were valuable. (Thus she only took them because she thought they weren’t valuable. Okaayyyy…) The police told her to write an apology letter to Copeland, in Spanish, in which she said in part, “Sorry for grabbing the rings. I don’t know what happened. I want you to forgive me.”

(I’m sorry, but I have to break in periodically so my head won’t explode. ” I don’t know what happened?” She knows what happened! She stole the rings because she thought she could get away with it.)

Copeland says she has never seen that letter, and that Mendez Ortega has never apologized to her in person. The maid was charged with felony grand larceny. At the trial, the jury found her guilty. (If she had confessed and was remorseful, why did she plead not guilty?)

But we are told that they felt sympathy for the defendant, who was pregnant with her second child, during the sentencing phase. “The general sentiment was she was a victim, too,” the jury foreman, Jeffery Memmott, told the Washington Post. “Two of the [female jurors] were crying because of how bad they felt.”  Although the  jurors convicted the maid of the felony, they agreed among themselves that it was just a “dumb, youthful mistake.” So they decided that her punishment would be only be her fee for cleaning the house the day of the theft, $60. Then they took up a collection and raised the money to pay the fine, plus and extra $20.

(Yes, she made money on the transaction. Crime pays.)

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

(And I’m sure the jury would have felt exactly the same way about a 19 year-old man who had stolen the same rings while fixing the plumbing. Like the convicted teen on the left below. That’s sad-faced victim Sandra on the right…)


(Note to juries: your job is to determine the facts and guilt or innocence. Compassion should be left to judges.)

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Smith entered the conviction and imposed the $60 fine. Apparently no one is aware of any precedent for a jury paying a convicted felon’s fine.  heard of a case where a jury paid a defendant’s fine.

Oh…did I not mention that Sandra Mendez Ortega is in the country illegally?  The jury didn’t know that either, because it isn’t relevant to what they were supposed to be deliberating on, which was her guilt or innocence regarding the charge of grand larceny. It would have been relevant to whether she was “a victim,” however.

For her part, Lisa Copeland is furious. “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….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.”

Mendez Ortega’s lawyer, predictably, saw the result as the justice system working the way it should work. “[I’m]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.”

(Funny, I think of being an illegal immigrant constitutes “being in trouble”…)


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

(It was remarkable, all right.)

Your Christmas Season, Heart-Warming, Charles Dickens-esque Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Did the jury do the right thing?

(Gee, I hope I haven’t given away my answer!)


27 thoughts on “Compassion! Crime! Betrayal! Law vs. Ethics! Illegal Aliens! Christmas Spirit! The Golden Rule! Five Golden Rings! (Okay, Only Three Rings, And One Was Junk, But Still…) The ‘Awwwww Factor’! Could This Be “The Greatest Ethics Quiz Ever Asked”?

  1. What was the judge thinking? In non-death penalty cases, doesn’t the judge determine the sentence based upon the applicable statute involved and upon the recommendation of the prosecutor?

    • Am I correct in assuming Alexandria is a sanctuary city? Surely all those federal employees need inexpensive domestics aplenty, non?

    • In Virginia, the jury reaches a verdict and then imposes a sentence (which I think is supposed to be within limits). The judge may alter the sentence. It’s caused a legal debate, because defendants who might take their chances with a jury trial sometimes fold knowing that jury sentencing presents them with a second wild csrd.

  2. Nope. Jewelry not a youthful mistake of stealing a candybar, or desperate mistake of bread and cheese because hungry. They had a job, and probably could have played the pity card for a grocery gift card. [do they really want to model how to be a thief and go to jail to their child?] And really, people usually buy jewelry that is expensive to them, $100 is huge to me and I keep closer eyes on that, but others think 5k$ is a lot to them.

    (still trying to see why I can’t see polls)

  3. The thief’s claim that they weren’t valuable suggests that she thought she was taking items worth only a couple hundred dollars instead of thousands. If the rings weren’t that valuable, she could expect to get away without any real legal penalty by making it more hassle to prosecute her than it would seem to be worth.

    Her claim reminds me of a coworker of mine, whose puppies were stolen by some neighborhood hoodlums. Despite the teens’ criminal records, the judge at first thought it was a trivial matter. When the owner pulled out documentation showing the dogs were purebred animals valued at thousands of dollars apiece, the judge’s and prosecutor’s demeanors abruptly changed, and the thieves’ attorney was suddenly in a hurry to play “Let’s Make a Deal”.

    • Market value should be irrelevant. Theft is theft. What happens if the jury feels that the value was insignificant because the victims are millionaires or billionaires? I would suggest that would validate the idea that taken something from the 1% ‘rs is less of a property rights violation than taking something of equal value from a less wealthy person. This is nothing more than an extension of the idea that those with wealth can afford to transfer it to the less fortunate.

        • Let me add further that she’s here illegally, she’s pregnant with her second child, unmarried at 19, and has stolen from someone who gave her employment… Decision making skills are not his chick’s strong suit.

          Jack is right: it was within the judge’s purview to decide compassion. At that point he could have directed her to any not for profit agency that might help her.

          I can only imagine what this young woman has learned about how the process works.

      • “Market value should be irrelevant.”

        I’d have to disagree with this. I think the relative market value should be irrelevant. That is, just because a person is a millionaire we shouldn’t blow off a $500 theft because to them “it’s nothing.” But the absolute market value must be considered. Otherwise the potential legal punishment allowed would be the same for stealing a candy bar and stealing a $200,000 work of art. Yes they are both theft and both should be punished but there should be some proportionality in the punishment. In Florida the first is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty on a first offense of 60 days and/or $500 fine. The second is first degree grand theft and can get 30 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. The rings in this case would be 3rd degree grand theft and she would be subject to up to 5 years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.

    • Why do you say that, since she needs to be deported anyway? She can’t won firearms and she can’t vote, felon or not. People who hire illegals don’t do background checks. A conviction itself isn’t a punishment.

      • Mostly because the felony conviction puts her closer to the top of the deportation list, and deportation is now a credible consequence.

  4. “So much of this story makes me feel like I’m losing my mind.”

    I feel the same way. I wonder if you’re losing your mind too.

    ” ‘I don’t know what happened?’ She knows what happened! She stole the rings because she thought she could get away with it.”

    I agree that she probably deserved a harsher punishment, but your response here is just goofy. Of course she knows what happened. People who say things like “I don’t know what happened?” (or “that’s not me,” which also seems to baffle you) don’t mean it literally. It’s a way of distancing themselves from earlier behavior that they find embarrassing, or that doesn’t fit their self-image or aspirations. It may or may not be a sincere expression of remorse, but you know she wasn’t literally claiming to have amnesia.

    But here’s the thing that really got me:

    “If she had confessed and was remorseful, why did she plead not guilty?”

    Because the technical and legal act of pleading not guilty has very little relationship to the common concepts of “guilt” and “remorse.” You have a law degree and you teach legal ethics. You know better.

    • That’s an everybody does it argument, Windy, and in an inappropriate context. The jury viewed her as uniquely deserving of special treatment. Her plea contradicts that. It undercuts her credibility and undercuts her apology. It’s very unusual to confess, not withdraw the confession, and plead not guilty anyway. It’s a per se lie, and the jury is likely to see it that way. Not these morons, maybe, but a normal jury.

      I think I’m pretty consistent here about how I regard statements like “I don’t know what happened,” which, as you say, is just another version of “that’s not me.” Neither baffles me at all: they are both lies, or in your complicit spin, “They don’t mean it literally.” Sure it’s “a way of distancing themselves from earlier behavior that they find embarrassing, or that doesn’t fit their self-image or aspirations”—in other words, lying and attempting to deceive others. Yup, a blog that clarifies unethical conduct that somehow slips through the cracks in our perception points out that pleading not guilty when you just said you were and that, as you admitted, “You don’t know what happened” when you DO know what happened are both unethical, whether a lot of people try to get away with it or not. Imagine that!

      So your critique translates into: “Why are you saying these statements that are the opposite of the truth are lies? I thought this was an ethics blog!”

      Now I really think I’m losing my mind. You’re gaslighting me, aren’t you?

      • So, when she said “I don’t know what happened,” given that she confessed to what happened in writing, do you think anyone really believed she has amnesia? If she had said “I’m not that person,” given that she confessed, do you really think anyone would believe that someone else did the crime? Of course not. It’s so obviously not literally true that no one would be deceived. It’s a common circumlocution that you, me, and the members of the jury all understood. What I’m saying is, you are trying to make a big ethics issue out of a common figurative saying.

        And a not guilty plea is just the procedural step that invokes the right to trial by jury. There’s nothing unethical about demanding that right.

        • Your last statement is just wrong. If you are guilty and admit it, then you don’t try to get lucky with a jury. The first part is the kind of thing I used to have a feature about in the Old Ethics Scoreboard. “I wasn’t lying, because only a fool would believe me” is just a rationalization. “I don’t know what happened” falsely implies that she somehow was not responsible for her actions, and that’s what it’s intended to imply.

  5. “If you are guilty and admit it, then you don’t try to get lucky with a jury.”

    In the unlikely event that anyone ever asks my opinion on whether they should hire you to teach ethics related to law, I’m going to point them to this statement. I know you’re not the only person who thinks this way, but it says a lot about you.

    • I don’t know what you think that means, but it tells you that I properly believe that people should accept accountability for their actions, and not claim to be innocent under the law when they are not. The jury system isn’t a lottery, and a functioning system needs good faith on both sides. There is a reason why criminals who plead guilty get lighter sentences than those who are guilty but insist on a trial.

      An ethical lawyer tells a guilty client that he or she has a good chance of being acquitted, and lets the client decide, after advising the client on the right thing to do. An ethical law-breaker turns himself in, pleads guilty, and accepts the just consequences of wrongdoing.

      Your comment is obnoxious and unfair, as well as ignorant.

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