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Coulter was given lifetime registration as a sex offender but won't go to state prison

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FARMINGTON — District Court Judge Louis DePauli Jr. told James Coulter that he was a marked man and would never be able to teach again. The former Aztec High School teacher was sentenced on a criminal sexual contact conviction for engaging in sex with a female former student.

Coulter was sentenced on the morning of Jan. 31 in Aztec District Court to 18 months in the New Mexico Department of Corrections, but the judge then suspended the remainder of his sentence for time he had already served in the county jail.

That paved the way for Coulter to be released as soon as that same day.

Coulter was arrested in 2018, and would have been incarcerated at the county jail for 18 months as of Feb. 17, the maximum sentence for the fourth-degree felony.

The judge also ordered Coulter, 33, to serve six months of sex offender probation and to register as a sex offender.

"I'm extremely disappointed in the judge's decision," San Juan County Chief Assistant District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said.

O'Brien added that the DA's office believes sex offenders should be supervised as long as possible, which is why the office sought out to send Coulter to state prison in order for him to receive a longer period of 5 to 20 years of parole.

Coulter's legal counsel disagreed. "I think it was an equitable decision to a difficult case," defense attorney Sarah Field said.

Field and Deputy district attorney Michael Sanchez spent most of the hearing arguing over specifics, including where Coulter would serve the remainder of his sentence and types of parole and probation.

Coulter plead guilty last month

Described as consensual statutory rape, Coulter had sex with a 17-year-old Aztec High School student in late 2015.

The defendant pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to one fourth-degree felony count of criminal sexual contact of a minor as part of a plea agreement, according to The Daily Times archives.

A second count of criminal sexual contact was dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

Coulter has been incarcerated since Aug. 17, 2018, at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center following his arrest.

He has been held without bond pending trial after now retired District Court Judge John Dean Jr. ruled in favor of the San Juan County District Attorney's Office motion on Aug. 23, 2018.

No evidence of force

The charges against Coulter evolved over time from two felony counts of criminal sexual penetration to two second-degree felony counts of criminal sexual contact, ending with two fourth-degree felony counts of criminal sexual contact.

The charges were amended after Judge DePauli ruled there was no evidence Coulter had used any coercion or force on the girl, according to The Daily Times archives.

Field sought to give Coulter a conditional discharge, where the defendant could avoid a felony conviction on his criminal record if he completed a term of probation.

Sanchez asked the court to send Coulter to the state prison system, which would have led to the longer probation period.

The prosecution read a letter from the victim during the hearing.

The letter stated the woman lied to school officials about the crime and was forced to write a letter to apologize to Coulter. She lied, believing if Coulter had harmed himself in any way, it would be her fault.

"His actions have tainted my life forever," Sanchez said while reading the letter.

Coulter and his father spoke during the hearing as Field read a letter of support for her client from a former Aztec high student.

The defendant told the court he was truly sorry for what he did and will have to live with the guilt of his actions.

Coulter signed paperwork at the end of the hearing, agreeing to the terms of lifetime registration as a sex offender.

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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