HEBER/OVERGAARD — Former Mogollon High School science teacher Melinda Porter, 37, of Heber/Overgaard was sentenced last Tuesday in the Navajo County Superior Court for three crimes arising from what an Oct. 21, 2019 Navajo County Sheriff’s Office press release characterized as “an inappropriate relationship” with a student.
Last month on August 11, Porter signed a plea agreement. She admitted her guilt to one amended count of attempted kidnapping, a Class 3 Felony which was designated as a “dangerous crime against children.” She also pleaded guilty to furnishing harmful items to a minor a Class 4 Felony, and an amended charge of aggravated assault with sexual motivation, a Class 6 Felony. The child victim, a male, was under 15 years old at the time; the crimes occurred between Aug. 1, 2018 and Aug. 1 2019, according to court records.
In the October 2019 news release, NCSO said that they began investigating allegations made by a student the previous September against Porter and she thereafter resigned her teaching position. After a six-week investigation, detectives arrested Porter and she was charged with six counts in all — three of furnishing harmful items to a minor, one count of aggravated assault of a minor “with sexual gratification,” and the most serious of the charges, one count of kidnapping.
Last month, Porter admitted to inviting the victim to get ice cream, and then took the boy to a forest where she kissed him, with “sexual motivation for sexual gratification,” states the agreement. That would account for the kidnapping and assault charges. She also sent to the victim, through the internet, “a photograph of the defendant’s unclothed vagina,” also stated the plea agreement; thus the furnishing harmful items charge.
By all appearances, her attorney Bruce S. Griffen of Flagstaff worked this case hard — he was able to at least get a shot at a “probation eligible” sentence from the judge. The state was represented by career prosecutor Deputy Navajo County Attorney Lee White, who by all appearances is no push-over. Judge Robert Higgins presided, after one side successfully asked for a change of judge from the Hon. Ralph Hatch early on in the case.
With regard to the charges being “probation eligible,” the parties would leave up to the judge whether Porter would be placed on probation which could include time in the county jail, (up to one year) or be sent to prison for 15 years, the maximum for the kidnapping charge. The broad range of sentence the parties agreed to suggests that there were substantial mitigating factors that Porter could argue to the judge to keep her out of prison and/or the defense alerted the state to possible evidentiary problems in the state’s case.
It also suggests that there was no way the county attorney’s office would agree to a probation-only deal, but found that there was sufficient cause to at least give the defense a shot at it. In cases like these, the disinclination for the victim’s parents or guardians to put the child victim through a jury trial usually weighs heavily.
In Porter’s sentencing memorandum, Griffen point blank stated that “You cannot label what Porter did as simply a ‘mistake.’” He stated that her misconduct in light of her stellar background “makes her misconduct even more difficult to explain...let alone understand. For this misconduct, Porter has paid, and will continue to pay, dearly.”
In the end the judge pronounced sentence: She was adjudged guilty of three felonies and placed on five years of supervised probation and one year in the county jail deferred. Porter was given credit for one day in jail that she already served and will not have to serve anymore time in jail if she successfully completes probation.
She must have no contact with the victim, and must register as a sex offender. Porter also must provided a DNA sample to “be used for law enforcement identification purposes and/or for use in criminal prosecution,” stated court records. She will also have to pay, if proven or agreed to, an amount of restitution into the court for the victim or his family’s economic loss arising from Porter’s criminal conduct. That usually means the costs of therapy or counseling, and time off work to attend court.
With regard to the impact on the school, Heber-Overgaard Unified School District Superintendent Ron Tenney told the Independent’s Laura Singleton on Oct. 23, 2019, that “This is an unfortunate situation and circumstance — one that any school district in the country would not want to be faced with,” and “For the students and faculty, we are going to do our best to move forward and put this behind us,” he added. “Our kids are pretty resilient and the staff has done a good job at handling the situation,” said Tenney.
There is no appeal allowed of a judgment entered after a guilty plea, and the state cannot appeal the sentence.