Merced district attorney won't seek death penalty in Planada murder-kidnap case

July 29, 2011 

The Merced County District Attorney's Office won't be seeking the death penalty for the couple accused of killing Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja and kidnapping her 2-month-old son.

"We made that decision some time ago," said District Attorney Larry Morse II. "We discussed it with the family and they understand our decision and are most interested in ensuring that those responsible for Ana Lila's murder are held accountable."

The case is still being considered as a capital one, and the DA's office is seeking a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Teresa Ceja Robles, 33, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 37, confessed to luring DeCeja to their home Dec. 2 in a plot to steal her 2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja-Diaz, authorities said. Velarde strangled DeCeja and the couple had planned to keep the baby as their own, investigators said.

The husband and wife face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. The murder case involves special circumstances, which are required to seek life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.

The special circumstances include lying in wait as the couple lured DeCeja into their home, and kidnapping.

Morse said few homicides qualify for the death penalty. He added that there's a trend among jurors who are moving away from imposing the death penalty. Some speculate that they do so because of the costs and the time that it takes to carry out an execution.

There are two phases for the death penalty. First, the jury needs to vote unanimously that it was a first-degree murder with special circumstances.

Then there's the penalty phase, where the jury would look at factors such as the nature of the crime, degree of planning and the defendants' criminal history, among other factors in aggravation and factors in mitigation, Morse said.

In this case, the defendants' clean criminal record was a substantial factor in the decision not to seek the death penalty, Morse said. "That is a very significant consideration with my experience," he said. "In this case, neither has a criminal record. That is something that we need to really evaluate to make a determination as to how that will be evaluated by a juror. We do what we think is best with our experience and our best guess on whether we think (the)jury is likely to return with the death penalty."

The DA's office was mindful of the costs for the death penalty, given the economic climate, although Morse said that wasn't a factor in their decision. "We always have to consider our ability to bear resources that we need to make sure justice is achieved," Morse said. Rodolfo Diaz, DeCeja's brother, said the family just wants justice. "As long as they get the highest punishment, it doesn't matter," he said.

Ceja Robles' attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum said he's satisfied with the DA's decision not to seek the death penalty for his client. "I mean, she witnessed a horrible crime," he said. "And so we are pleased with their decision."

Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard, Velarde's attorney, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Morse said he's only sought the death penalty twice in the past two decades. More recently in 2007 with Cuitlahuac "Tao" Rivera for the murder of Merced Police Officer Stephan Gray.

Merced County spent a total of $401,999 in Rivera's prosecution costs, according to Angelo Lamas, a management analyst for Merced County. According to Sun-Star archives, the costs were higher, but the county was entitled to $533,000 in reimbursement from the state for costs stemming from the trial.

In this case, the cost could be double because there are two defendants, Morse said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at

(209) 385-2482 or

yamaro@mercedsun-star.com.

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