SIOUX FALLS -- A 14-person jury must decide whether Maricela Diaz was a vulnerable, 15-year-old abused girl, or a murderous mastermind on the night of Nov. 10, 2009.
The murder trial began Monday for Diaz, now 20, who is accused of killing Jasmine Guevara in 2009, who was 16 at the time.
Judge Tim Bjorkman noted at the beginning of the trial that one alternate juror had to be dismissed Friday, leaving two alternates and 12 jurors to hear opening statements from the prosecution and defense.
Assistant S.D. Attorney General Brent Kempema painted the picture of a jealous, angry 15-year-old Diaz, who wanted to hurt Guevara. Diaz thought her boyfriend, Alexander Salgado, had a romantic interest in Guevara.
"Life can be described as a series of choices," Kempema said in his opening statement. "You're going to hear about choices made by two young women that led them to a country road in rural Hanson County. Unfortunately, we will not meet one of those two young women."
In July, the South Dakota Supreme Court made a decision to allow Diaz's 2009 confession to the murder of Guevara to remain a part of the trial. Bjorkman had earlier ordered the confession to be suppressed, but the prosecution successfully argued to the Supreme Court that Diaz waived her Miranda rights "with a full awareness."
Diaz is charged with three alternate counts of first-degree murder - first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree murder-felony murder - each of which carries a minimum of life in prison or death if she is convicted. A $50,000 fine may also be imposed.
The first-degree murder charge claims Diaz killed Guevara or aided or abetted in her killing.
The first-degree murder-felony murder charges each claim Diaz killed Guevara while also committing another felony. The first count claims Diaz committed arson when she killed Guevara and the second count claims Diaz committed kidnapping when she killed Guevara.
The murder charges each carry a minimum penalty of life in prison.
She is also charged with conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree arson and second-degree aggravated kidnapping. The conspiracy charge carries a minimum of life in prison or a death sentence, and can include a $50,000 fine, upon conviction.
The arson charge carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, upon conviction. The kidnapping charge carries a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, upon conviction.
Kempema said on the night of Nov. 10, 2009, Guevara agreed to give Salgado and Diaz a ride in her new vehicle -- a 1999 Chevy Malibu -- to Walmart to purchase lighter fluid for a cookout and bonfire. Salgado and Diaz convinced Guevara to accompany them to a "haunted house" in rural Hanson County for the bonfire.
Guevara agreed and drove the couple, who had plotted the killing of Guevara once they arrived at the abandoned house, Kempema said.
He said the couple took knives from the home they were staying at, and planned to stab and burn Guevara.
Upon arriving at the abandoned home, "Jasmine was no longer their friend. She was their prey," Kempema said.
He said Salgado and Diaz took advantage of Guevara's kind nature. Kempema said Salgado got out of the car and walked toward the house while Diaz stayed in the car with Guevara.
"Miss Diaz had another choice at that point. She could tell Jasmine to put the car in drive and say, 'Go. You're in danger.' Or she could follow the plan and begin the assault," Kempema said. "Miss Diaz chose the latter."
Kempema told the jury the details of what happened inside the car may not be entirely clear, because Diaz and Salgado gave police conflicting accounts.
After the couple stabbed Guevara, they put her body in the trunk of the car, drove the car into a grove of trees, doused Guevara in lighter fluid and set it ablaze, Kempema said. The couple walked 8 1/2 miles back to Mitchell to the house they were staying at and watched TV like nothing happened, he continued.
And, when law enforcement took them in for questioning on Nov. 11, 2009, the couple lied.
"She began lying to police immediately," Kempema said.
Diaz told police she and Salgado were siblings, she had a different boyfriend and gave an incorrect birthdate and incorrect spelling of her name. She also yelled instructions to Salgado through an interview room wall at the Mitchell Police Division to lie about his name, his dad's identity, to tell law enforcement they were on vacation in Mitchell and that they were siblings.
Police soon asked her about what she bought at Walmart on Nov. 10, 2009.
"She knew the jig was up and in Spanish, she said, 'We did. We did,' " Kempema said. "She told law enforcement she wanted to hurt Jasmine. She wanted to burn her."
Kempema told the jury Guevara was just a 16-year-old girl who wanted to be kind and help those around her, including Salgado and Diaz, who she thought were her friends.
"She had a fatal flaw. She was too trusting, and she died because of it," Kempema told the jury. "Miss Diaz made choices. Because of those choices, Jasmine ended up in the trunk of her car, alone and burning alive. You have a choice at the end of this trial. We ask for a guilty verdict for each and every count in the indictment."
Defense attorney Doug Dailey painted a much different picture of Diaz, as a beaten-down victim of mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Salgado.
Diaz and Salgado began their relationship when Diaz was 12 while they were both living in Fort Wayne, Ind. Her school work and attitude declined and she began acting out, Dailey said. Her attendance slipped and her family tried to get her away from Salgado.
By the time she was 13, Diaz was pregnant with Salgado's child. Dailey said Salgado was a gang member and preyed upon Diaz. When he found out Diaz was pregnant, he was angry, Dailey said.
"He wanted her to prove her love to him by committing suicide," Dailey told the jury. "He wanted her to slit her wrists."
When Diaz wouldn't go through with Salgado's demand, Salgado slit Diaz's wrists and left her to die in his family's home. Dailey said the Salgado family found Diaz in time and she was saved, but she still went back to Salgado.
"He was mentally abusive to her. He called her names. He dictated what she could and couldn't wear," Dailey said. "Once Salgado came into her life, Maricela's life became a downward spiral."
Shortly after having the child, Salgado used a connection in South Dakota to set up a place to stay in Mitchell. The couple moved from Fort Wayne to Mitchell in early October 2009.
It wasn't long before the couple met Guevara and became friends.
Dailey said Diaz was completely dependent on Salgado, who told Diaz during a police interview to take the blame for Guevara's death.
"We hope you hear from Salgado," Dailey told the jury. "So you have an opportunity to observe his demeanor and credibility, to decide what is reasonable. You will believe his version is not reasonable. He'll say it was all her idea."
Dailey reminded the jury that "tiny Maricela Diaz" was under the control of Salgado, not a mastermind behind the murder of Guevara.
Guevara's mother testifies
Guevara's mother, Ada Morales, of Mitchell, testified about her daughter's disposition, responsible nature and how all that changed when she began her friendship with Salgado and Diaz.
"I told her I didn't like the friends she was hanging out with," Morales said.
She added Guevara's attitude began to change. Guevara started to stay out late and come home with alcohol on her breath.
"I was worried, scared," Morales said.
Despite Guevara working full time and part time jobs to pay for the braces she wanted, Morales said her personal life began to take a downward turn. Morales turned to authorities to implement a curfew on Guevara, set up counseling sessions and any other help she needed.
But, Guevara kept acting out. She left home without asking, came home later than expected and continued to hang out with Salgado and Diaz.
On Nov. 10, two days after Guevara finally got the Chevy Malibu she bought, with help from her mother, authorities knocked on Morales' door asking whether Guevara was missing.
"It made me feel very bad," Morales said. "It felt like my soul just came out from my body. It felt like my heart was squeezing. Everything was wrong."
Law enforcement asked for items from Guevara's room that might contain her DNA, Morales said. The prosecution had Morales identify a tank top and underwear police took for samples.
"After they took the items, police told me they found a burnt body in the trunk of the car," Morales said through tears.
'I saw a rib cage and a skull'
Witnesses for the prosecution testified about the night of Guevara's death from seeing the vehicle sitting on a country road prior to it being burned to finding Guevara's charred remains in the car trunk.
Dawn Niehoff, a dispatcher for the Mitchell Department of Public Safety, lives in the area where Guevara's vehicle was found. She saw the vehicle sitting on the side of the road as she drove to work that night, approximately 6 miles from Mitchell.
She said she saw two people in the vehicle and thought it was strange, so she noted the license plate number before going to work.
About an hour after arriving at work, Niehoff's neighbor, Judi Bartscher, called 911 to report a fire in a treeline on her property. She called a second time to report the fire was a vehicle aflame, Niehoff said.
Alexandria firefighter Nick Rehorst told the jury briefly about the fire department putting out the car fire and surrounding flames the night of Nov. 10, and later being asked to open the trunk of Guevara's car.
"I saw a rib cage and a skull," Rehorst said. "I opened it far enough to take a glance in. I noticed the rib cage and it didn't seem right to me so that's when I took another glance and saw the skull."
Rehorst told the prosecution the skull had braces on its teeth. He immediately called authorities and had all firefighters clear the scene.
The trial will continue today at the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls.