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Sentencing of former school resource officer in child abuse case draws mixed reactions

Zachary Christensen's lawyer blasted the "overly zealous prosecution" in the child abuse case.

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
This is an image from the vest camera of former Farmington Police Officer Zachary Christensen on Aug. 27, 2019. He was trying to detain an 11-year-old female student at Mesa View Middle School in Farmington. He pleaded no contest to child abuse and battery charges as part of a plea agreement.
  • Zachary Christensen was sentenced on Jan. 14 to three years of conditional discharge suspension.
  • He previously had pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony count of child abuse and a misdemeanor count of battery.
  • Christensen resigned from the Farmington Police Department on Oct. 1, 2019, after a review of the incident found his actions violated the department's polices on use of force and job performance.

FARMINGTON — A former Farmington school resource officer who pleaded guilty in November to child abuse and battery charges in regard to a 2019 altercation with an 11-year-old female student will not serve any time in prison. That decision drew a sharp rebuke from the state's top law enforcement official but was praised by the officer's attorney. 

Judge Curtis Gurley sentenced Zachary Christensen on Jan. 14 to three years of conditional discharge suspension, which the judge said carries the standard conditions of probation. An agreement was entered on Nov. 4, 2020, in which Christensen pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony count of child abuse and a misdemeanor count of battery. Christensen had two petty misdemeanor counts of battery dismissed as part of the agreement, according to The Daily Times archives.

MORE:Former Farmington cop pleads no contest to abusing middle school student in 2019

New Mexico Attorney Genera Hector Balderas, whose office prosecuted the case, expressed dissatisfaction with the sentence. Prosecutors had sought the maximum three-year sentence for Christensen.

Hector Balderas

"We were able to secure a conviction in this case, yet the sentence is highly disappointing," he said in a statement issued through his office. "By allowing a conditional discharge, this defendant will have admitted to abusing a young minority special needs child in a school and can effectively walk away like it never happened."

The Attorney General's Office prosecuted the case after the San Juan County District Attorney's Office decided not to file charges against Christensen.

Julita Ann Leavell, the attorney representing Christensen, had a much different perspective on the judge's decision, singling out Balderas' office for criticism.

"First, great thank you to Judge Gurley for his fairness and justice," she said in a statement issued to The Daily Times. "Second, I do feel this was a just result after a long, drawn out matter that was made infinitely worse by the overly zealous prosecution by the Attorney General's Office after the case had been declined by the State Police and the District Attorney's Office. The media smear campaign created and embellishments offered by the AG's office to pursue this matter through the court system was ethically questionable and lacked all decency. Hopefully, Mr. Christensen and his family will be able to piece back together their lives after this unfortunate event. I also hope that the young lady involved in this matter will find peace and success in her life, as this has been a difficult period of time for her and her family."

Farmington Police Department spokeswoman Nicole Brown issued a statement on behalf of the department that stated simply, "The Farmington Police Department is pleased this incident has been resolved for all parties."

MORE:Former Farmington officer accused of attacking, abusing 11-year-old middle school student

Christensen resigned from the Farmington Police Department on Oct. 1, 2019, after a review of the incident found his actions violated the department's polices on use of force and job performance.

Farmington Municipal School District spokeswoman Renee Lucero said the district would have no comment on Christensen's sentencing.

According to The Daily Times archives, Christensen was a school resource officer on Aug. 27, 2019, when his body camera recorded his use of force to restrain the girl at Mesa View Middle School in Farmington. The student reportedly was being disruptive near the entrance of the school, and Christensen's body camera captured footage of him trying to place the student in handcuffs while she resisted.

The altercation that was recorded showed Christensen slamming the juvenile into a window. The student suffered a concussion, as well as scrapes and bruises during the incident.

According to The Daily Times archives, the girl's family and the City of Farmington are entering into a proposed agreement to settle a personal injury claim from the altercation for $500,000.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.