According to a plea deal in his felony case, Noah Munoz shouldn’t have gone to jail on Tuesday. The 30-year-old Laramie man, who was being sentenced for an aggravated assault and battery conviction, should have been a free man beginning anger management classes and returning to his job helping complete Grand Avenue’s roadwork.
Instead, Munoz was hauled away from the Albany County district courtroom in handcuffs after Judge Tori Kricken decided to override the plea agreement that called only for probation. That agreement had been hashed out by his defense attorney, Charles Pelkey, and a former prosecutor who no longer works in the Albany County Attorney’s Office.
And while the plea deal calls for the prosecution to agree for probation at sentencing, County Attorney Peggy Trent wasn’t enthusiastic in asking Kricken to uphold the terms of the plea deal.
Typically, when there’s a plea deal with a firm sentence recommendation, prosecutors and defense attorneys use their time at sentencing to argue to a judge why the plea deal is in the best interest of justice.
Trent didn’t do that, and merely acknowledged that she’s ethically bound to uphold the plea deals her deputies negotiate.
Pelkey said that, while he acknowledged Trent’s “discomfort” at the agreement, the specifics of Munoz’s case made the defendant ripe for probation.
Munoz was charged with the felony after he approached a stranger during a graduation party at the Laramie Ice & Events Center, punching him in the face, which rendered the man unconscious on May 28, 2018.
Munoz later told the police the victim had a history of sexually assaulting women. He said he was upset the sexual assaults were not reported and he did not feel anyone would do anything about them.
Pelkey told Kricken on Tuesday that while Munoz now acknowledges that “any form of vigilantism is inappropriate,” the fact the assault came from what Munoz believed was “a noble reason” should still be a mitigating factor.
After the attack last spring, Laramie Police Department officer Weston Kelly was called to Ivinson Memorial Hospital after the blow to the victim’s head resulted in stitches, a concussion, a broken jaw and a few broken teeth.
The victim reported he did not know who struck him when the officer arrived, but he said several people told him it was Munoz. But the victim said he did not know Munoz and did not do anything that would upset him, according to court documents.
A day later, the victim told investigators he remembered more of the event. According to the affidavit, he said he was at a table in the ice rink when Munoz allegedly came up to him and said he wanted to show him something.
The victim got up from the table and Munoz allegedly put his arm around his shoulder as the two walked away. Munoz then struck the victim once, resulting in him falling to the floor. Another eye witness said the defendant then looked around a few times and ran off.
Munoz later contacted Kelly and admitted he struck the victim.
Munoz said the victim allegedly sexually assaulted three girls, two of whom were in attendance at the party.
In Wyoming, a conviction of aggravated assault and battery carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, and prison time is common for defendants who are convicted.
Before sentencing, Munoz’s friends and family described the man as a good husband and loving father to his six children.
His mother-in-law argued that sending him to jail would only make him unable to provide for his family.
Kricken ordered $10,000 in restitution be paid to the victim, and Pelkey said that the “restitution would probably be paid a lot faster” if Munoz was allowed to continue to work.
At Munoz’s sentencing on Tuesday, Kricken noted the “long-term physical and psychological effects” that the attack had on the victim, as well as Munoz’s own criminal history, in deciding the terms of the plea agreement were too lenient.
Instead, she gave him a one-year split sentence in the Albany County jail, with credit for time served. According to court records, Munoz was first released after spending five days in jail, meaning he should have almost six months before he’s released.
After he’s released he’ll also have five years of probation with an 8-10 year prison sentence that Kricken could impose if he violates the probation.
Pelkey asked whether Kricken would allow Munoz to turn himself in to the jail within 24 hours, saying the defendant needs to “get his affairs in order” and “find a way to terminate his employment.”
Kricken denied that request.
Before Munoz pleaded guilty to the charge, attorneys on the case spent February preparing for a trial. Defense attorneys had hoped to tell the jury about Munoz’s belief that the victim had sexually assaulted a number of girls.
Before they tried to present that as evidence, prosecutors were able to get Kricken to block the possibility that the victim’s alleged history might be discussed.
An “emotional reaction to an unsubstantiated rumor” had no relevance to Munoz’s guilt, they said.
Prosecutors also noted that the victim “was never charged or even reported criminally and the alleged offenses have not been substantiated by any source to the state’s knowledge.”
Defense attorney Vaughn Neubauer said the point of presenting that context at trial was not intended to be evidence concerning Munoz’s guilt, but merely to help “the jury to understand that he is not a dangerous psychopath randomly selecting victims.”
“To pick a person out of the phonebook (so to say) and commit a random act of violence makes one seem like a deranged psychopath reminiscent of a character from a Steve Martin movie,” Vaughn wrote.
On the day of trial, Munoz decided to plead guilty in exchange for the expectation of probation.