MDC rejects sex offender's early release

Feb. 28—A judge has ordered a convicted sex offender, an Albuquerque lawyer, released from a three-year prison sentence into a monitored program with the Bernalillo County jail.

The reason: He cannot get sex offender treatment in prison due to the pandemic.

On Feb. 17, 2nd Judicial District Judge Courtney Weaks suspended two years of 51-year-old Matthew O'Neill's prison sentence.

Weaks ordered O'Neill transferred to the Metropolitan Detention Center to serve the remaining year in the Community Custody Program. Under the order, O'Neill would be released but would have to check in with MDC regularly, register as a sex offender, wear an ankle monitor and abide by other conditions — such as not being around anyone under the age of 18, aside from his children.

"The defendant and the community would be best served if he is to receive such treatment," Weaks wrote in her order.

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However, MDC denied the request for entering the CCP. A spokeswoman said that under a memorandum of understanding the jail has with the courts, those charged with certain crimes, including sex offenses, are not eligible for the program.

O'Neill's attorney, Marc Lowry, is planning to fight that refusal in a hearing next month. Lowry did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Judge Daniel Gallegos in September sentenced O'Neill — a former partner at the Whitener Law Firm — to 22 years but suspended 19 years, after he pleaded no contest to possessing and manufacturing child pornography.

Eric Harrison, a spokesman for the New Mexico Corrections Department, said O'Neill was never able to make it to Otero County prison — where sex offenders are held and receive treatment — because the prison quit accepting transfers after the COVID-19 outbreak there. Instead, O'Neill was at the Grants prison awaiting transfer, he said.

The allegations against O'Neill arose in January 2019, after evidence of child pornography was found on his work computer, according to previous Journal reports. The Attorney General's Office seized the computer, thumb drives, a camera and other items from his office. Since then, O'Neill has been sued by Whitener Law Firm for damaging the firm's reputation, and in June the state Supreme Court suspended him from practicing law in the state.

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After he was sent to prison, O'Neill's attorneys filed motions to have his sentence reconsidered on the grounds of the possible long-term effects of COVID-19 and its presence in New Mexico prisons. They asked that O'Neill be given credit for time served and put on probation, arguing that incarceration is not a deterrent in child sex abuse material cases.

The attorneys said the true harm will come to O'Neill's children, with their father behind bars, and O'Neill if he gets infected with COVID-19.

Prosecutors argued that the victims in the material that O'Neill was caught with "do not get to put their pain and suffering on hold" due to the pandemic and O'Neill was not being subject to "cruel and unusual punishment."

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