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New trial ordered for Arizona mother accused of imprisoning children

FILE - In this Dec. 2, 2015, file photo, Sophia Richter is shown at her trial on child abuse and kidnapping charges in Tucson, Ariz. She is accused of keeping her three daughters imprisoned in their Tucson home for three months. The Arizona Supreme Court on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, threw out her convictions and ordered a new trial, saying the judge at her trial erred in barring her claims that she was compelled to commit the crimes by her husband's threats and immediate use of force. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Supreme Court on Friday threw out the kidnapping and child abuse convictions of a woman accused of keeping her three daughters imprisoned in their Tucson home for three months.

In a 4-3 decision, the state’s highest court ordered a new trial for Sophia Richter, concluding the judge at her first trial erred in barring her claims that she was compelled to commit the crimes by her husband’s threats and immediate use of force.

The decision is similar to a ruling a year ago by the Court of Appeals that threw out Richter’s convictions and granted her a new trial.

Sophia and Fernando Richter were arrested in November 2013 at their home in Tucson. Sophia’s 12- and 13-year-old daughters had escaped through the window of a bedroom they shared and alerted a neighbor after their stepfather, Fernando Richter, tried to break down the room’s door and was brandishing a knife, authorities said.

Police later discovered Sophia Richter’s 17-year-old daughter was being held separately from her sisters in another room. Although the three girls lived in the same house, the 17-year-old at that point hadn’t seen her sisters for more than a year. The three girls were malnourished, dirty and hadn’t been to school in years.

Investigators said there were motion sensors on the doors to the girls’ bedrooms and video cameras trained on their beds. Music blared loudly to mask any noise they might make.

Richter claimed she was under constant control of her husband and that he was physically abusive toward her.

Fernando Richter is serving a 58-year prison sentence for his convictions in Pima County.

The couple also has a pending case in neighboring Pinal County, where they lived before moving to Tucson and now face child abuse and kidnapping charges. They have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors in Pinal County have said the majority of the crimes committed against the children happened in their jurisdiction.

In the Pima County case, prosecutors argued Sophia Richter failed to show that she faced a threat of immediate physical force and had merely asserted a generalized fear of her husband.

A dissenting opinion issued by three state Supreme Court justices said Richter, in pursuing such a duress defense, failed to show she acted in response to a threat or immediate physical force.

The three dissenting justices said Richter had opportunities during the three months to escape or notify police, such as when she went to the grocery store with her mother-in-law.

However, the opinion by the court’s majority said it was persuaded that an ongoing threat of harm can be sufficiently immediate for a duress defense, even when the threat precedes the illegal conduct by several days and the person posing such threat isn’t around.

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