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Durango man sentenced to prison for threatening retired judge

Prosecutor says similar crimes are ‘an attack on our American justice system’

A Durango man with a lengthy criminal history was sentenced Thursday to eight years in prison for threatening a former 6th Judicial District judge.

Christopher “Jake” McLeod, 34, began sobbing shortly after District Judge Anthony Baca handed down the sentence.

But Baca wasn’t done.

The judge doled out three more years – this time a community corrections sentence – for violating the terms of his probation in a previous menacing case. The community corrections sentence, which is similar to living in a halfway house under strict supervision, will begin once McLeod completes his prison term.

McLeod pleaded guilty to retaliation against a judge in a plea agreement with the District Attorney’s Office. He was facing up to 12 years in prison.

According to an arrest affidavit, McLeod sent threatening text messages to retired District Judge Todd Norvell’s personal phone in March. The messages included veiled threats that included the judge’s personal address, a claim that McLeod had shared the judge’s personal address with others and it indicated that McLeod was familiar with Norvell’s daily routine.

Norvell, who previously sentenced McLeod to probation for throwing chairs at security guards, resigned Jan. 14 citing health issues. He later took a part-time job as the city of Durango’s municipal judge.

The text messages, edited to remove offensive language, included:

  • “Hey there (derogatory term for homosexual).”
  • “Your sickness is apparently serious enough for you to resign. I hope you suffer tremendously before you pass away. I couldn’t think of a better person to happen to. I’ll be sure to make fun of your family publicly when you’re gone.”
  • “(Norvell’s home address). That address was posted and sent to anyone and everyone you’ve ever passed judgment on. The devil will (expletive) you in the (expletive) while you drink fire.”
  • “Your daily routine as well. ie Your favorite restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, po box and anything that could make you uncomfortable in public.”

Public defender Ryan Day asked that McLeod receive a five-year community corrections sentence, saying his client suffers from mental health problems, is working to address those issues and is a productive member of society as long as he is on his medication.

McLeod didn’t intend to harm the judge, Day said. Rather, he was acting out during a psychotic break.

Deputy District Attorney Vance Davis delivered a lengthy rebuttal, saying McLeod has a 15-year criminal history that spans at least three states and includes charges of assault, menacing, criminal mischief, receiving stolen property, theft of a firearm, felon in possession of a firearm and assault on a police officer.

He said McLeod has received a “multitude of chances,” including chances from Judge Norvell, yet his criminal behavior only escalates. In one of his most recent cases, McLeod was required to be screened for drugs and alcohol. He missed 44 of those appointments and tested positive 30 times, Davis said.

“No more consideration needs to be shown,” he said.

Threatening retaliation against a judge is not only a crime against Norvell, but a crime against the judiciary – “an anchor of our American experiment,” Davis said.

“Wearing the robes should not make one a target,” Davis said.

He cautioned that if public servants entrusted to make “sound and just decisions” are targeted and made to live in fear of retaliation, the whole system crumbles. More specifically, he mentioned the shooting death of Judge Andrew Wilkinson, who was gunned down last month in his Maryland driveway after ruling on a divorce case.

“It is an attack on our American justice system, and particularly upon one of the three branches of government – the judiciary,” Davis said.

Norvell did not attend Thursday’s sentencing hearing. Davis said Norvell’s absence was not out of apathy or a lack of desire to attend. Rather, he wanted to allow Baca, his successor, to make a “fair and just” sentencing decision without the former judge putting his finger on the scale, Davis said.

Likewise, Norvell’s absence shouldn’t be construed as a sign that McLeod’s crime didn’t impact the judge, Davis said. Norvell had to worry about his own safety, the safety of his neighbors, the safety of people he met socially and even the safety of people in his municipal courtroom until McLeod was captured in New Mexico, Davis said.

“(Norvell) certainly slept more soundly and moved about more freely with the knowledge of the defendant’s (capture),” Davis said.

Davis asked Baca to sentence McLeod to 12 years in prison for retaliating against a judge and seemed to leave it up to the court’s discretion to impose an additional three years for revocation of a previous deferred judgment.

Prior to sentencing, McLeod apologized and said he understands the seriousness of the crime. He said he allowed his “disdain” for another human being to dictate his behavior.

Judge Baca called it a “serious offense” that undercuts the criminal justice system and society’s ability to peacefully govern.

Retaliation against a judge is a somewhat rare crime, he said, but it is becoming more common.

Baca acknowledged McLeod’s struggles with mental health, but also said McLeod has received multiple opportunities to correct his behavior.

America hasn’t figured out how to handle criminal defendants with mental health issues, Baca said. But he couldn't overlook McLeod’s lengthy criminal history and missed opportunities. He was concerned McLeod could stop taking his medications at any time, causing something much worse to happen.

He wanted to strike a balance between handing down a firm sentence yet providing McLeod an opportunity to reintegrate with society. With that, he sentenced McLeod to eight years in prison and three years in community corrections.


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