Judge throws out Diaz confession in Guevara murder case
ALEXANDRIA -- A judge has thrown out a confession from an alleged killer in the 2009 murder of a Mitchell girl.
A ruling issued Tuesday by Judge Tim Bjorkman found investigators failed to properly inform Maricela Diaz, accused of killing 16-year-old Jasmine Guevara in November 2009, of her Miranda rights. Diaz was 15 at the time of her alleged involvement in the crime and is now 17.
The order prevents prosecutors from using any statements Diaz made to police after her arrest on Nov. 11, 2009.
"It was the correct decision," said Mitchell attorney Doug Dailey, who is representing Diaz along with another Mitchell attorney, Chris Nipe. The Daily Republic spoke to Dailey after the ruling was issued Tuesday. Prosecuting attorneys could not be reached immediately for comment.
The trial for Diaz was scheduled to begin Sept. 10 in Sioux Falls but has now been indefinitely continued while prosecutors pursue an appeal of the judge's decision to the state Supreme Court.
Diaz is from Fort Wayne, Ind., but was living in Mitchell at the time of the alleged crime. Diaz allegedly participated in the murder with Alexander Salgado, who has already been convicted. Both are originally from Mexico and are in the country illegally.
Salgado pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in August 2010 in connection with Guevara's death and is serving a life sentence at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Diaz could face life in prison if convicted but, because of her age at the time of the crime, could not be sentenced to death.
Diaz is accused of helping to lure Guevara to a rural area and then stabbing her and leaving her in the trunk of a burning vehicle. Investigators said Diaz, who has a child with Salgado, was jealous of a developing relationship between Salgado and Guevara. Salgado has recently declared he will not testify against Diaz.
Bjorkman's Tuesday decision recounts Diaz's first interviews with investigators, who spent hours talking with Diaz after implicating her in the crime. Authorities spent significant time tracking down Diaz's correct name, age and relationship with Salgado after she apparently gave them false information, the ruling says.
It shows the officers also attempted to inform Diaz of her rights in both Spanish and English, but shows Diaz needed them repeated several times before she said she understood them.
Bjorkman's ruling states Mitchell Police Investigator Joel Reinesch downplayed the importance of the Miranda rights by telling Diaz "There's a protocol I've got go through first, okay? Not a big deal at all and we'll get through this." Bjorkman adds that Reinesch "inaccurately characterized" Diaz's Miranda rights by focusing mostly on her right to remain silent, and not on her right to have an attorney present.
"It is difficult to understate the importance of a right to be represented by a lawyer, especially for a juvenile who is suspected of involvement in a serious crime," Bjorkman wrote.
Bjorkman also ruled that the interviewing officers misled Diaz by suggesting the main reason they wanted to speak with her was regarding her running away from her mother's home in Fort Wayne, Ind., rather than Guevara's death.
The judge also ruled that officers failed to inform Diaz's mother why her daughter was being questioned. Officers told Irma Guiterrez-Plancencia that Diaz was being questioned as a witness, not as a suspect.
Bjorkman adds investigators never specifically asked Diaz if she wished to waive her Miranda rights, and that Diaz never specifically said she was waiving those rights.
"Considering these circumstances together with the facts about Diaz herself and her age, education, emotional stability and background, the court does not conclude that Diaz impliedly waived her right to counsel by speaking with investigators," the judge wrote.
Though much of the interview is recorded, Diaz's alleged confession is not. According to information in the ruling, a new audio/video system that had recently been installed at the Mitchell Police Division shut off after four continuous hours, as it was programmed to do, but it went unnoticed by interrogators for at least an hour and a half.
Diaz was in custody for nine hours while being interviewed by investigators at the Mitchell Police Division, the ruling says.
While Bjorkman admits that law enforcement was put in a "difficult position, in endeavoring to solve a brutal murder case," he rules that the state Supreme Court has made it clear that juveniles are especially afforded protection of their constitutional rights.
"This is not a determination based on a mere technicality," Bjorkman wrote. "Instead, it is grounded in the right against compulsory incrimination contained in the United States Constitution, and it is extended to all persons charged with a crime."
Despite throwing out the alleged confession because of the Miranda issue, Bjorkman said police had not coerced Diaz into making any statements and that "those statements were voluntarily made."
Bjorkman reserved ruling on the admissibility of answers Diaz gave to investigators regarding her identity.
A motion similar to the one Bjorkman granted was rejected when Diaz was still in juvenile court. Prosecutors petitioned her to adult court.
Because of the ramifications of the ruling for both sides, Bjorkman has already issued a stay on Diaz's trial.