EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series recounting the murder of 16-year-old Jasmine Guevara, which occurred 10 years ago Sunday.
Though Alexander Salgado and Maricela Diaz made confessions to police at virtually the same time and were arrested for 16-year-old Jasmine Guevara’s murder on the same day, their cases took different paths from that point forward.
The two were indicted by a grand jury the week following the murder.
“At the point that we presented the case, it was pretty much a no-brainer," said Tyler Neuharth, a special agent with the Division of Criminal Investigation who worked on the Guevara case. "I don’t think they deliberated more than 10 minutes.”
The guilty plea
Salgado, who was 20 on Nov. 10, 2009, when he and Diaz stabbed and burned Guevara near the line separating Hanson and Davison counties, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in August 2010 — just nine months after his arrest. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and is currently housed in the Jameson Annex at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
As part of Salgado's plea agreement, he was required to fully debrief law enforcement on the murder. Though most of the key details in the case had been uncovered within the 48 hours after the car fire was reported, Neuharth said the interview with Salgado, which was between six and eight hours long, allowed law enforcement to corroborate evidence to later use when prosecuting Diaz.
Prosecutors originally said they would seek the death penalty for Salgado if he were convicted of first-degree murder. Guevara’s mother, Ada Morales, told The Daily Republic on Tuesday that she asked that capital punishment be taken off the table because she wanted Salgado to serve a punishment longer than the time it would take between sentencing and an execution.
Salgado's attorney, Mike Fink, did not respond to a message from The Daily Republic.
Diaz trial delayed
Diaz’s case, meanwhile, stretched out for more than five years due to her status as a juvenile, concerns about her confession and preparation for her jury trial.
From the date of her arrest, Diaz’s identity and all of her court proceedings were confidential, with authorities stating only that a 15-year-old girl with the initials “M.D.” was accused alongside Salgado.
In July 2011, Diaz was moved to adult court following a transfer hearing, which is similar to a trial in that it involves testimony and the presentation of evidence. Deputy Attorney General Bob Mayer declined to comment on the juvenile transfer hearing, which was confidential.
Diaz's trial was stayed in August 2012, when Judge Tim Bjorkman ruled that Diaz's confession be thrown out, with the explanation that she hadn't been properly advised of her Miranda rights.
While factors such as age played a part in that decision, Bjorkman also said Joel Reinesch, then an investigator with the Mitchell Police Division, didn't equally emphasize each of Diaz's rights, as some were repeated to her more times than others for clarification.
Bjorkman also took issue with Reinesch prefacing Diaz's rights by saying, "There's protocol I've got to go through first, OK? Not a big deal at all."
"There was no ill intent using these words, but ill intent doesn't matter. I should not have said, 'not a big deal,'" Reinesch told The Daily Republic this week. "Was it a lesson learned? Yes. Would I prefer not to have a lesson learned in a murder case with a 16-year-old victim? Absolutely."
Reinesch, now an assistant professor of criminal justice at Dakota Wesleyan University, said he now uses the video of that interview in his classes so his students can learn that same lesson without the high-stakes circumstances.
The state appealed Bjorkman's decision, and the state Supreme Court ruled in May 2014 that Diaz's confession be allowed because her actions around the time of her confession showed that she understood her rights and the gravity of what was happening. For instance, while Diaz and Salgado were placed in interview rooms next to each other, Diaz was later found to have been instructing Salgado through the wall to lie.
"She clearly understood the ramifications of waiving her Miranda rights," Reinesch said. "She's doing everything she can do to get out of these charges. Not only that, but she's coaching this guy. He's 19 and she's 15, and she's clearly the one who's in control here."
Morales and Guevara's older sister, Ada Guevara, both said they refused to accept a plea deal that would give Diaz a 30-year prison sentence, with parole eligibility after 15 years. They felt it was necessary to go to trial.
"Thirty years is nothing, compared to the lifespan that we get these days. Thirty years is nothing for Maricela, especially, because she's so young," Guevara said. "My mom was very emotional, and she said, 'Well, I don't care. We'll go to trial. Even if the judge does say only 15 (years), at least we tried.'"
Manipulated or a murderer?
Diaz's trial began on Jan. 5, 2015, and lasted for more than a week.
Diaz's attorneys, Chris Nipe and Doug Dailey, made the case that Diaz was a vulnerable girl who had been manipulated by Salgado since she was 12, and her involvement in Guevara’s death was the latest event in a spiral of abuse.
Nipe and Dailey did not respond to messages from The Daily Republic as of Thursday afternoon.
On the trial’s fifth day, Diaz’s mother, Irma Gutierrez Plasensia, testified that prior to meeting Salgado, Diaz had been a well-behaved, good student. Salgado was also brought in to testify but quickly became agitated and refused to answer questions.
The defense called clinical and forensic psychologist Craig Rypma, who testified that his evaluation of Diaz showed she had an adjustment order, making situations involving Salgado especially difficult for her to adjust to. Another psychologist, David Bean, testified that Diaz also had conduct disorder and had been physically and sexually abused.
In cross examination, Bean testified that conduct disorder and adjustment disorder would not have made Diaz unable to make decisions independently. The state argued that Diaz, motivated by jealousy, murdered Guevara intentionally and with premeditation.
Investigators testified to the physical evidence in the case, such as tests that proved an accelerant was used to set the car on fire, a bloodhound using a scent from Salgado’s shirt to trace a path from the site of Guevara’s murder to the house in Mitchell where he and Diaz were staying, and blood evidence. A forensic expert also indicated that although Diaz and Salgado confessed to stabbing Guevara before putting her in the trunk and setting the car on fire, the fire was what caused her death.
On Jan. 15, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts against Diaz: three counts of murder, first-degree arson and second-degree kidnapping.
A state law passed in 2004 exempted minors from capital punishment, meaning Diaz, who was 15 when she committed her crime, was ineligible for the death penalty even after she was transferred to adult court. Additionally, under the precedent of Miller v. Alabama set by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2012, Diaz, as a minor when she committed her crime, could not be given a life sentence.
Mayer said there have been at least two cases in South Dakota in which minor defendants convicted of first-degree murder and given life sentences prior to the SCOTUS decision were resentenced to prison time longer than Diaz’s.
Paul Jensen Jr., who killed a taxi driver in 1996 in Pierre, is serving a 200-year sentence, while Daniel Charles, who shot his stepfather in 2000, was resentenced to 92 years. Both were 14 when they committed murder.
On March 27, 2015, five years and four months after Guevara was killed, Diaz was sentenced to 80 years in prison for murder, concurrent with 50 years for kidnapping. She will be eligible for parole in 2049.
Morales and Ada Guevara said that despite how long it took, they were glad Diaz went to trial rather than accepting a plea deal.
"Jasmine was gone. She wasn't able to be there and say what they did to her, how she felt and all that. What they took away from her. So we were all her voice," Guevara said. "(Eighty years) was sort of closure for us, in that aspect. We know that nothing's going to bring her back, and nothing's going to change. But at least we have a really bad person off of the streets."