Weed Whacker

A tribal judge on the wrong side of the law tries to pull her life together.

When the agents from U.S. Customs came to her Sells home that May day in 1999, Mary Audrey Juan saw law enforcement from a perspective opposite from that she had as a Tohono O'odham tribal judge.

She consented to a search of the trunk of her 1995 Pontiac Grand Prix, a search that yielded eight bales of marijuana, according to the criminal complaint. Agents then turned their attention to a storage shed. Mary Juan flat told them it held pot. And another seven bales were seized, bringing the total to 365 pounds.

Juan, then 44, was put in custody. An indictment on June 9, 1999 charged Juan and Miriam Johnson, a tribal government worker, with four counts of marijuana possession and possession with intent to distribute pot on separate occasions stretching back to May 1995.

In handcuffs and wearing a detention-center orange jump suit, the former judge, who was then seeking a Tohono O'odham legislative position, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Raymond Terlizzi the month after her arrest. She was released on $20,000 bond.

The case stood out in the frenetic mill of drug cases in federal court because of Juan's job adjudicating criminal cases on the Tohono O'odham bench and through the presence of her powerhouse lawyer, Alfred S. "Skip" Donau, who has represented, among other big names, retired Mob boss Joe Bonanno.

Juan changed her original not-guilty pleas in September 1999, according to court records. A plea agreement eliminated three counts. It left a guilty plea to a charge that on the day of arrest, 365.15 pounds of marijuana was seized from a "residence and a vehicle owned and occupied by Mary Audrey Dolaretta Juan. Juan knew the marijuana was in the residence. (She) further stated that she knowingly and intentionally possessed with the intent to distribute 365.15 pounds of marijuana."

Deleted from the agreement was that Juan "was to be paid upon successful delivery of the marijuana to another person."

She faced maximum fines of $2 million and between five and 40 years in prison.

All that changed last week, just as U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was to sentence Juan. Roll rejected the plea agreement after allegations that Juan was under duress at the time of the arrest.

Maria Davila, the assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting both Juan and Johnson, said the issue of duress will now be a question for the jury to decide. A trial date has not been set.

"She was always under duress," Donau said. "The judge said it rose to the level that he wasn't going to accept the plea bargain."

Davila said that Juan qualified for a reduction of prison time.

Donau also has been successful in giving Juan a little room. She was allowed to move back to Sells to live with her mother. And while Johnson, the co-defendant, was allowed to travel last year to Anthony, Texas, so her children could visit their father at La Tuna federal correction institute, Juan was given permission to go on what associates say is a regular religious pilgrimage to Magdelena, Sonora.

Juan has also been given latitude to try a new career. Her release was modified in November to allow her to attend the Native Wellness Rehabilitation and Disabilities Conference in Reno--the city Juan visited as a judge to attend the National Judicial College. Juan had landed a job with Arizona Long Term Care Services, caring for the elderly and homebound.

Johnson has not done so well, according to court papers. On a regular check-in with Customs, Johnson tested positive for cocaine. She was re-arrested in October. The deadline for a plea agreement in Johnson's case is February 23. Alternatively, trial is scheduled to begin March 13.