Judge denies defense motion in case of kidnap, murder

Won't exclude key evidence

vpatton@mercedsun-star.comApril 12, 2013 

— A Merced County judge on Friday denied a defense motion in the Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja homicide case. The motion would have excluded a crucial piece of evidence from the upcoming trial of DeCeja's alleged killers.

Defendants Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38, are charged with murder in the December 2010 death of DeCeja, 26. They also are accused of kidnapping her then-2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja-Diaz.

Robles' attorney, Jeffrey Tenenbaum, filed a motion earlier this month seeking to exclude from the trial statements Robles made to Merced County Sheriff's Detectives Mike Ruiz and Micah Brawley after her arrest.

While being questioned by the detectives in 2010, Robles admitted she had planned the abduction with Vel-arde but said she didn't plan to kill DeCeja.

Tenenbaum argued in his motion, however, that Robles' statements should be thrown out because detectives read her Miranda warning in English, when her first language is Spanish. Tenenbaum maintained his client didn't understand her Miranda rights under the law because of the language barrier.

California State University, Fresno, linguistics Professor Gerald McMen-amin testified as a defense witness for three days. McMenamin examined three hours of interviews between the detectives and Robles. He concluded she didn't know enough English to effectively understand and waive her Miranda rights.

But Judge Brian McCabe on Friday disagreed with McMenamin's assessment. McCabe said the interviews show Robles conversed at length in English with the detectives and gave immediate responses to many of their questions.

McCabe said he watched the recorded interviews in their entirety, adding that it was apparent Robles understood English "in a higher and better manner" than McMenamin claimed.

Defense disappointed

Tenenbaum said he was disappointed with McCabe's ruling.

"We thought we had put forward enough evidence to show the court that Maria Ceja primarily speaks in Spanish and that her rights were violated, but the judge has the final say on that issue," Tenenbaum said.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, who is prosecuting the case with Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini, said McCabe made the right decision.

"We believe that the ruling was proper and the detectives in the Sheriff's Department did an extremely professional job of investigating a really challenging case," Morse said.

Prosecutors believe the couple lured DeCeja to their 85 Market St. home in Planada on Dec. 2, 2010, in a plot to steal her baby boy. Robles told detectives Velarde strangled the victim.

After their arrest, the couple at first denied killing DeCeja but confessed after further questioning, according to authorities.

The baby was found on the doorstep of a Le Grand home and later reunited with his family. DeCeja's burned body was found by deputies in an orchard near Snelling.

Velarde and Robles, who are husband and wife, face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police.

If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of life in prison. Both remain in custody at the Merced County Jail.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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