Judge resentences HIV-positive woman to time served

Posted Aug. 04, 2009, at 2:09 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A federal judge Tuesday resentenced a pregnant, HIV-positive woman from Cameroon to 114 days, or time served, for having a fake Social Security card and work permit.

Quinta Layin Tuleh, 28, who now lives in Portland, won her appeal in June when the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reversed the original sentence that would have kept the African woman in federal prison two weeks past her due date of Aug. 29. The appellate court gave no guidance on what her sentence should be.

Tuleh wept Tuesday as U.S. District Judge John Woodcock imposed the sentence her defense attorney and a federal prosecutor had recommended jointly on May 14 at her original sentencing in federal court in Bangor.

“I just want to say that a lot of people who have gone through a lot for me are here today,” she told the judge Tuesday. “I am grateful for their time and support. I want to say, God bless America.”

Tuleh’s case drew the interest of more than 40 organizations from around the nation that signed on to a “friend of the court” brief that urged she be sentenced to time served. The groups included many that provide services to people who have been diagnosed with AIDS or HIV. Other organizations included those devoted to civil rights advocacy, immigrants’ rights, issues facing Africans living in America, women’s rights and prison reform.

“We’re pleased with the result today,” Tuleh’s attorney, Zachary Heiden of the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation, said after the resentencing. “The court imposed a sentence that was appropriate under the law and our Constitution.”

He asked the judge that she be sentenced to 114 days rather than the 144 she actually served so that her criminal record would reflect the shortest possible sentence.

Heiden took over the case to handle the appeal when Tuleh’s original attorney, Matthew Erickson of Brewer, withdrew.

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation in New York City, attended the resentencing in Portland. She criticized Woodcock’s original sentence outside the courthouse.

“It was inappropriate for our client to have received a long sentence solely because she was HIV-positive and pregnant,” said Kolbi-Molinas, a staff attorney with the ACLUF’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “So we’re very pleased with the result.

“The widespread support in favor of a reversal of the sentence shows that we are no longer a society which incarcerates the sick and the poor because they are sick and poor,” she said

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined Tuesday to comment on the revised sentence.

In May, Woodcock ordered that Tuleh be incarcerated for 238 days to ensure that she received the necessary medical care to lessen the risk of her child being born with the AIDS virus. The judge released Tuleh on June 15 — a week before the appellate court issued its decision — on personal recognizance bail after staff at the Frannie Peabody Center in Portland assured him that Tuleh would receive proper treatment through the center. The center offers support to people diagnosed with AIDS and the virus that causes the disease.

Immigration officials also told Woodcock last month that Tuleh would be summoned to appear in Immigration Court but would not be rearrested.

Tuleh is in the process of applying for asylum in the U.S. on the basis that she has been the victim of a crime, according to court documents. She may have suffered abuse while working for her former employer, who has not been named, in Aroostook County, according to an affidavit filed in June by her immigration attorney, who works for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland.

An update on the status of that case was not available Tuesday.

In addition to time served, Woodcock sentenced Tuleh to two years of supervised release through the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services. An officer from the Portland office has supervised Tuleh while she has been out on bail.

The resentencing hearing Tuesday lasted less than 10 minutes and was much shorter than the average sentencing hearing for defendants on similar charges. Most sentencings on immigration charges handled by Woodcock last 45 minutes to an hour.

Uncharacteristically, Woodcock did not elaborate on the reasons he imposed the revised sentence, as he did at Tuleh’s original sentencing and as he does for nearly every defendant before him.

Tuleh arrived in September 2008 in New York City and lived in Maryland until early January, when she went to Presque Isle to work as a nanny for a family, according to court documents. She was arrested Jan. 21 at the Presque Isle airport after false documents were discovered in her luggage. Tuleh told investigators she had quit her job in a dispute with the woman for whom she worked.

She became pregnant before she came to Maine, according to Erickson, but did not confirm the pregnancy until after her arrest. Her HIV status was not known until a few days before her first sentencing in May.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

990-8207

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