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Supreme Court upholds confession in Mitchell murder

Mericela Diaz appears at the Hanson County Courthouse in August 2011 when she pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of 16-year-old Jasmine Guevara. (Daily Republic file photo)

The South Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday decided to allow a confession to stand in a Mitchell murder case.

In circuit court in August 2012, attorneys for Maricela Diaz convinced a judge that their client’s confession to the killing of 16-year-old Jasmine Guevara in November 2009 should be tossed out because investigators failed to properly inform Diaz of her Miranda rights. Diaz was 15 at the time of her alleged involvement in the killing. She is now 19.

Judge Tim Bjorkman ordered Diaz’s confession suppressed following the 2012 hearing, stating she was not properly read her Miranda rights -- her right to remain silent and her right to an attorney.

The Supreme Court justices disagreed with Bjorkman’s ruling, and they reversed it in a 4-1 decision. The justices said Diaz knowingly and intelligently waived her Miranda rights.

“This is a case where the facts are essentially undisputed,” wrote Justice Lori Wilbur. “ ... Taken in totality, we conclude that the State met its burden to show more likely than not that Diaz’s waiver of her Miranda rights was ‘with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it.’ Thus the trial court erred in suppressing Diaz’s confession.”

Justice John Konenkamp was the only justice who agreed with Bjorkman’s earlier ruling.

Jasmine Guevara was found Nov. 10, 2009, dead and badly burned in the trunk of her car at a rural location in Hanson County. She suffered multiple stab wounds, but an autopsy revealed she had been burned alive, according to court documents. Diaz and her boyfriend and co-defendant, Alexander Salgado, now 25, allegedly lured Guevara to the rural area under false pretenses, stabbed her, put her in the trunk of the car and lit it on fire using lighter fluid. Salgado pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2010 and is serving a life sentence without parole.

Diaz is facing up to life in prison for multiple charges: first-degree murder, felony murder-arson, first-degree arson, felony murder-kidnapping, and second-degree aggravated kidnapping.

Diaz is awaiting trial for those charges and remains in custody of the state of South Dakota, said Marty Jackley, South Dakota attorney general. He declined to say where Diaz is being held, citing safety reasons. The trial location has been moved from Hanson County to Sioux Falls.

Law enforcement from the Mitchell Police Division brought Diaz in for questioning on Nov. 10, 2009. After an hour and a half of interrogation, Diaz confessed to killing Guevara, according to court documents.

But in August 2012, Diaz’s attorneys argued that law enforcement downplayed her rights, gave inaccurate summarizations of her rights, used deceptive tactics on the topics of discussion, and used deceptive tactics to gain her mother’s consent to let Diaz speak, and neglected to follow procedure.

After those arguments, Bjorkman decided to toss out Diaz’s confession.

The Supreme Court said on Thursday that Investigator Joel Reinesch’s comments to Diaz downplayed “the importance of Diaz’s Miranda rights.”   

Reinesch was the lead investigator when Diaz was brought in for questioning, along with Officer Hector Soto, of the Sioux Falls Police Department, who came in to translate in Spanish to Diaz.

However, the affirming justices said Reinesch’s words did not poison the entire interrogation. The justices wrote that Diaz was advised twice in English and once in Spanish of her rights, and she said she understood those rights. “The warnings were reasonably conveyed,” the court wrote in its decision.

The Supreme Court said Reinesch’s second explanation of Diaz’s Miranda rights didn’t include her right to an attorney, only the right to remain silent. However, the court contends, Diaz said she didn’t understand any of her rights and “almost immediately following that statement, Diaz received her Miranda rights in Spanish, and indicated she understood all her rights.”

Diaz argued officers led her to believe they only wanted to talk about events that happened in Indiana, where her parents lived.

“The record is clear that Diaz knew the officers wanted to talk about Jasmine,” the Supreme Court wrote.

Law enforcement told her in both English and Spanish they wanted to talk about all recent events in Indiana and involving Guevara, and her boyfriend Alexander Salgado, the court added.

The justices said although Officer Soto didn’t advise Diaz of her continuing right to remain silent, on the whole she understood she could stop the interview whenever she wanted. Soto was the officer who translated in Spanish when speaking with Diaz.

“Diaz’s desire to speak in Spanish so she could limit her answers displays her understanding of her continuing right to remain silent,” the court wrote.

The justices said law enforcement did not act improperly when they gained consent from Diaz’s mother, and it was reasonable for law enforcement to tell Diaz they gained her mother’s consent to speak with her regarding the incidents. Diaz’s mother had earlier told law enforcement that Diaz informed her Salgado had beaten and sexually abused Diaz.

“In this specific situation, the officers’ behavior did not preclude Diaz from knowingly and intelligently waiving her Miranda rights,” the court wrote.

The court said South Dakota law does not require law enforcement to gain consent from a parent to speak to a juvenile.

Law enforcement continually tried to contact Diaz’s mother. Officers also gave Diaz and her mother many chances to speak with each other and did not lie to Diaz to get her to talk, the court wrote.

The court recognized Diaz’s limited ability to speak English, but said she gave “appropriate responses to requests,” according to the court’s opinion.  

The court agreed, however, that law enforcement did not strictly follow procedure to promptly notify the state’s attorney about placing Diaz in temporary custody, which is required by law. The record doesn’t say when the state’s attorney was notified of her custody. Despite their agreement, the court also said law enforcement didn’t intentionally fail to comply with statute.

Rather, it “was an oversight in the heat of a fast-moving, grisly murder investigation,” they wrote.

Justice Konenkamp disagreed with his fellow justices, stating Diaz was too immature to waive her rights, and that children are more susceptible to police interrogation. He said law enforcement used deception to convince Diaz to speak with officers, minimized her constitutional rights and never asked her to waive her rights.

“This court’s strained effort to portray Maricela as other than the troubled and immature child the police interrogated serves to demonstrate how tenuous its decision is,” Konenkamp wrote.

He said there was no mention of Diaz waiving her rights and that “wanting to talk and wanting to waive one’s Miranda rights before talking are separate matters the court seeks to merge.”