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Accused teen killer Diaz: Savvy or naive?

Supreme Court justices, from left, Steven Zinter, John Konenkamp, David Gilbertson, Glen Severson and Lori Wilbur listen to arguments in the case of State v. Diaz on Monday at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. (Katie Adkins/For The Daily Republic)

SPEARFISH — Maricela Diaz was either a confused and frightened abuse victim who was unable to understand what police were telling her, or she was a savvy teenaged murder mastermind who believed she could lie her way out of trouble, according to lawyers on opposite sides of her case.

On Monday before the South Dakota Supreme Court, which was meeting at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, lawyers painted two different portraits of the then-15-year-old girl accused of murdering a romantic rival by stabbing her and burning her in the trunk of a car in Hanson County, near Mitchell, in November 2009. Diaz, a Mexican national, had fled Indiana with then-20-year-old Alexander Salgado, leaving their three-month-old daughter behind.

Maricela Diaz  Diaz’s level of sophistication and maturity is a key factor the high court is considering as justices weigh whether Diaz’s confession given to Mitchell police Nov. 12, 2009, should be allowed as evidence in her murder trial, which has been moved to adult criminal court.

Underpinning the issue is whether Diaz understood her Miranda rights — her right to remain silent and her right to an attorney — after they were read to her in her native language, Spanish, and whether law enforcement officers followed proper procedure in taking a juvenile into custody.

Salgado is serving a life prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 16-year-old Jasmine Guevera, of Mitchell. He claims the murder on Nov. 10, 2009, was Diaz’s idea. Prosecutors contend that Diaz saw Guevera as a rival who was romantically interested in Salgado. Diaz and Salgado hatched a plan to murder Guevera, they say.

Jasmine Guevera  “She explained how she planned to murder Jasmine by bringing her out into a secluded area, stabbing her and burning her,” Deputy Attorney General Sherri Sundem Wald told the court. “Diaz and Salgado decided to prove their love to one another when they decided to murder Jasmine.”

She said Diaz’s confession came one hour and 48 minutes into questioning that lasted nearly three hours. But police could not begin questioning Diaz about anything for several hours because they did not know anything about her other than she was likely a person seen with Guevara on a grainy Walmart surveillance video taken Nov. 10.

Diaz began trying to deceive police from the moment she was picked up for questioning, at about noon on Nov. 12, Sundem Wald told the court.

“At that point in time, they didn’t even know who she was,” Sundem Wald said. “She was lying about her name, her birth date, her mother’s name. She was giving them plenty of false information.”

Diaz did not want to return to Indiana, where her mother lived, Sundem Wald said. That she provided a barrage of false information shows Diaz was sophisticated and knowledgeable about law enforcement procedure, she argued.

In addition, Sundem Wald said that during the questioning on Nov. 12, Diaz was advising Salgado of what to tell police “so they could keep their stories straight.”

Sundem Wald believes the transcript of Diaz’s interrogation shows she understood her Miranda rights once they were read to her in Spanish.

“She asked, ‘You mean I can stay silent if I want to?’” Sundem Wald said. “The officers said, ‘Yes.’ She made a decision to talk because she thought she could lie her way out of it.

“(Investigators) asked, ‘Would you like to continue the questioning in Spanish or English?’ Her response was, ‘In Spanish so I don’t get confused and say too much or too little,’” Sundem Wald said. “She understood the significance of what she was doing at that point in time.”

Diaz’s attorney, Chris Nipe, argued the opposite. He said the lies show Diaz was naive.

“The trial court referred to her attempts to deceive law enforcement as pathetically immature,” Nipe

said. “When she was interviewed Maricela said it felt like when she was being questioned for skipping

school. That points out how immature this 15-year-old is when being questioned about this very serious matter. The fact is she’s a sexual abuse victim. This is an inexperienced, immature girl.”

He said Salgado began a sexual relationship with Diaz when she was 13, and that relationship produced a baby girl when Diaz was 14.

In addition, Nipe said Diaz has no criminal history and, therefore, no experience with the criminal justice system. She had been a child in need of supervision because of her relationship with Salgado.

“That is different than being involved in the criminal justice system,” Nipe said. “The state can’t refer to any prior criminal record of this young girl.”

Nipe pointed to Diaz’s statements during her juvenile intake hearing on the evening of Nov. 12 as evidence she did not grasp her legal rights.

“(The judge) asks her, ‘Do you understand your rights?’ She indicated she does not understand her rights. She asks, ‘If I don’t speak, will it be held against me?’” Nipe said. “That is a very good indication of how confused she was about her rights.”

Nipe also argued that Diaz likely would not have been questioned at all if law enforcement officers had conducted a temporary custody hearing, something he said state law requires for juvenile defendants “immediately.” He argued that the hearing held later the evening of Nov. 12 was conducted far too late and is a sign that officers did not deal honestly with Diaz.

“Statute does not say wait nine hours and then contact an intake officer,” Nipe said. “What would have happened (if officers followed state law), they would have notified an intake officer, who would have presumably placed the child with the Department of Social Services, and Maricela would not have been available for questioning.”

Those statutes and others that require parental notification are designed to provide juveniles with the “advice and counsel” of adults when making decisions.

“We had a young girl here that needed to be protected by a parent, by a court, by an intake officer, by a state’s attorney,” Nipe said. “She did not understand the seriousness of this.”

Investigators did reach Diaz’s mother in Indiana and asked if they could question her daughter. Her mother granted that permission, but Nipe argued that police told her mother that Diaz was a possible witness, not a criminal suspect.

Furthermore, he objected to a police statement to Diaz that her Miranda rights were “not a big deal.”

“It’s an indication that law enforcement was deceptive in dealing with Maricela,” he said.

Sundem Wald argued that police did not know Diaz’s status themselves and so they could not represent to her mother that she would become a murder defendant. Once police determined Diaz’s identity, they could not determine whether she was a runaway or a kidnapping victim. And in what Sundem Wald repeatedly called a fast-moving investigation, they were unsure whether Diaz was a suspect, a witness or a victim herself.

“A temporary custody order was entered when officers had a basis to enter it,” she told the court. “They certainly did not have reasonable grounds to believe she was a runaway. They certainly didn’t have enough information to charge her with first-degree murder when they sat her down.”

Amid all the intrigue, Justice Steve Zinter said there is just one question the court must answer: “In spite of all that, the question is, did she knowingly and voluntarily waive her rights? That’s the only question.”

The court is expected to issue its opinion in writing at a later date. Diaz, now 19, remains in custody at the Minnehaha County Jail. In addition to first-degree murder, she faces kidnapping and arson charges.