Couple pleads not guilty to charges of killing mother, kidnapping baby
12/17/2010 4:41 PM
12/18/2010 1:48 AM
The couple accused of killing Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja made their first appearance at the Merced County Courthouse via video Friday afternoon.
Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 33, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 37, pleaded not guilty to three felonies and one misdemeanor during their arraignment.
Several relatives of the victim were in court.
The arraignment was in Spanish and included an interpreter, Fernando Vazquez. Robles held her head down throughout most of the arraignment.
The wife and husband face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. They are both being held without bail at John Latorraca Correctional Center south of Merced. A preliminary hearing is set for 10 a.m. Jan. 4. The hearing is to determine whether there's enough evidence for the couple to stand trial.
The maximum punishment for the murder charge is life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. The maximum punishment for kidnapping is up to 11 years in state prison. The punishment for the child abuse charge is up to four years in state prison, and up to six months in county jail for filing a false report.
Larry Morse II, Merced County district attorney, said the murder charges involve special circumstances, which is required to seek life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
The first is lying in wait as the couple lured DeCeja into their home; the second is kidnapping.
Morse said most district attorneys evaluate the case to see if seeking the death penalty is appropriate.
"That involves the nature of the homicide, which is pretty shocking for anyone, their prior criminal record and mental health issues," he added.
Morse said he has sought the death penalty for two out of 25 cases he has tried.
As shocking as the crime is, and in many respects sad, it doesn't appear to be complicated, he said. "The motive is pretty clear."
The Merced County public defender's office will decide who is going to represent the couple. Morse said Robles' case will be assigned to a contracted public defender to avoid potential conflict between the couple.
Luis DeCeja, the victim's husband, said he wants the death penalty for the couple. "So they can suffer like they've made us suffer," he said in Spanish. "So they can pay for what they did."
Jocefina Diaz, the victim's sister, said she will be satisfied only with the death penalty.
The couple was arrested Wednesday, accused by authorities of strangling DeCeja on Dec. 2, setting her body on fire in an orchard near Snelling and kidnapping her 2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja Diaz.
Five days later, the infant was found on a doorstep of a house in Le Grand. Initially, the couple intended to keep the infant as their own, authorities say.
The Merced County Sheriff's Department did an outstanding job in putting the pieces of the case together, Morse said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6507, or email@example.com.
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