The Washington Post

Virginia Jury Convicted Woman of Stealing Then Paid Her Fine

"I could see in her that she was a good person that made a mistake," the jury's foreperson said

The case seemed clear-cut. A woman working as a house cleaner in Fairfax City, Virginia, confessed to stealing three rings from a home.

A jury convicted her of a felony, but they imposed a fine of only $60 and gave her money to pay the fine, plus an extra $20. The woman had faced as long as 20 years in prison and a fine of as much as $2,500.

After The Washington Post first reported the story, News4's David Culver spoke with the maid and the jury foreperson on Friday.

The group chose to have compassion toward the maid, Sandra Mendez Ortega, 19, a mother of two, jury foreperson Jeff Memmott said.

"I could see in her that she was a good person that made a mistake," he said.

Mendez Ortega was working inside a home when she swiped the rings. They were the victim's engagement ring, wedding ring and a third, inexpensive ring, the Post reported.

Speaking inside her simple apartment in Falls Church, Virginia, with her baby boy at her side, Mendez Ortega said she took the rings out of desperation.

"I only work to provide for my kids," she said in Spanish, through tears.

Mendez Ortega initially denied stealing the rings. But she confessed later and gave them back. 

The jury found her guilty but thought she didn't deserve time in prison. They decided on a $60 fine but wanted to do more.

“One of the female jurors pulled out a $20 bill and said, 'I want to help pay for her fine,'" Memmott said. "And I don’t know if it was everybody, but the vast majority of jurors did the same thing, including me."

Together, they collected $80, $20 more than the cost of the fine.

The jurors' action did not sit well with the crime victim, Lisa Copeland.

“I just pray that they’re never in my shoes,” she told the Post. She did not respond to News4's inquiries.

Memmott said he feels good about what he and his fellow jurors did.

“They weren’t out anything. They got back their property. They got justice," he said, referring to the victims.

Mendez Ortega said she was relived.

"I feel very happy," she said, overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

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