SPEARFISH | The South Dakota Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week during its three-day fall term at Black Hills State University, including whether to allow at trial the alleged confession of a teenager charged in the killing of a 16-year-old Mitchell girl in 2009.
The purported confession by then-15-year-old Maricela Diaz has delayed her trial for the first-degree murder of her romantic rival, Jasmine Guevara, who was burned alive in the trunk of her car after being stabbed numerous times on the night of Nov. 10, 2009.
Diaz’s alleged accomplice, then-20-year-old Alexander Salgado, admitted to his role in the slaying in August 2010 and was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Salgado fathered a child with Diaz when she was 14 years old, according to authorities, and both were Mexican citizens in the U.S. illegally.
"This case boils down to a very horrific homicide of a young 16-year-old, little girl,” South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said in August 2010.
State Circuit Court Judge Tim Bjorkman ruled as inadmissible Diaz’s supposed confession just weeks before trial last fall because he said the suspect could not knowingly and intelligently waive her Miranda rights when being questioned about the murder. State prosecutors appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, State Deputy Attorney General Sherri Sundem Wald argued that Mitchell police had taken all necessary precautions to guard Diaz’s rights when she was interrogated shortly after the killing, including bringing in a Spanish interpreter to explain those rights in her native language.
Wald told the five Supreme Court justices that Diaz was initially uncooperative with police and “was doing everything within her power to prevent them from finding out who she was and who her parents were.”
“Police didn’t know if she was a runaway, a victim or a criminal,” Wald said. After being read her Miranda rights in English and Spanish, Wald said Diaz began cooperating and eventually admitted to her role in the killing.
“At the end of the day, (police) were very meticulous about giving her her Miranda warning,” Wald argued. “She made a voluntary, conscious decision to waive her rights and speak with officers.”
Diaz’s attorney, Chris A. Nipe, told justices his client was informed by police that waiving her right against self-incrimination was “not a big deal at all.”
He argued that Diaz was not of the age or maturity to consciously make that decision, nor had she any experience with the U.S. legal system or had she ever previously been questioned by police. Nipe characterized Diaz, a sexual abuse victim and runaway, as “vulnerable and prone to bad decisions.”
In turn, justices queried the attorneys on the facts of the case and asked prosecutors if Diaz was sophisticated enough to know that speaking to police without counsel might lead to her arrest for the crime.
“The question is did she knowingly and voluntarily waive her rights?” asked Justice Steven Zinter.
“The record shows this was a street-savvy person who was fully aware of her rights,” Wald responded. “She knew she didn’t have to talk if she didn’t want to.”
During a temporary custody hearing held for Diaz the day after her arrest, Nipe said, Diaz asked the court if not talking would be held against her.
“That’s a very good indication of how confused she was about her rights,” the attorney argued while asking justices to affirm the lower court’s ruling.
The Supreme Court, which meets at BHSU through today, is expected to rule on the appeal in the coming months. In addition to the Diaz case, this week justices will hear oral arguments in eight other cases.