Legislation could affect sentencing in Diaz casePIERRE — A proposed change to South Dakota law would mean juvenile offenders convicted of the most serious crimes could face up to life in prison, but not a mandatory life sentence.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
PIERRE — A proposed change to South Dakota law would mean juvenile offenders convicted of the most serious crimes could face up to life in prison, but not a mandatory life sentence.
The legislation, Senate Bill 39, would bring South Dakota into compliance with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision by allowing a maximum sentence of life in prison for juveniles convicted as an adult of Class A or Class B felonies.
Maricela Diaz, 18, faces multiple charges, including first-degree murder, for her alleged involvement in the death of a 16-year-old Mitchell girl, Jasmine Guevara. Diaz was 15 at the time of the crime.
When Diaz was first indicted with first-degree murder, a Class A felony, she faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted. She could not receive the death penalty because of her age at the time of the crime. As a result of the Supreme Court decision and the potential change to South Dakota law, Diaz could still face life in prison, but could also receive a lesser sentence at the discretion of a judge.
For adults in South Dakota, a Class A felony is punishable with a mandatory sentence of death or life in prison, and a Class B felony is punishable with a mandatory life sentence.
The new legislation was proposed by South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in June that found sentencing a juvenile to a mandatory sentence of life in prison violated the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishments.
Jackley testified before the Senate Judicial Committee in support of the bill.
“They’re not saying you can’t ever have a life sentence,” Jackley said in an online recording of the committee hearing accessed by The Daily Republic. “It just can’t be mandatory and you better have a hearing.”
The bill would require a hearing to be held prior to a sentence being imposed. Modeled after South Dakota’s death penalty laws, the hearing would allow prosecutors to present aggravating evidence and allow the defendant to present mitigating evidence before a judge could impose a sentence.
Youthfulness and the chance for rehabilitation could be included as mitigating factors at the hearing, Jackley said.
“You get to bring in everything,” he said.
There have been only three cases of juveniles receiving a mandatory life sentence in South Dakota, Jackley said.
Diaz is accused of luring Guevara to a rural area in Hanson County and then stabbing her and leaving her in the trunk of a burning vehicle.
Alexander Salgado pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in August 2010 in connection with Guevara’s death and is now serving a life sentence at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty for Salgado.
In a signed plea agreement, Salgado admitted to participating in the murder and to holding Guevara’s head while Diaz cut into her neck.
After being moved to adult court, Diaz was indicted on Aug. 5, 2011, on six charges related to the crime, including first-degree murder, which, under the current law, is a Class A felony punishable with a mandatory sentence of death or life in prison.
Because of Diaz’s age at the time of the crime, a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision makes her ineligible for the death penalty. If Senate Bill 39 is passed and Diaz is convicted, she would be sentenced under the new guidelines.
Jackley did not mention Diaz by name, but did briefly allude to her case during the committee hearing while discussing the idea of juveniles being more prone to rehabilitation.
“There is an allegation in South Dakota of a juvenile throwing another juvenile in a trunk, stabbing them, and, while they’re alive, lighting the car on fire,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to take that chance of rehabilitation.”
The bill passed 7-0 in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 17 and 34-0 in the Senate on Jan. 18. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22.