Federal judge rejects plea in homicide, saying sentence too lenient

By Felicia Fonseca
Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - Calling the punishment too lenient, a judge has rejected a plea deal that called for a 10-year sentence in a homicide case on tribal land in which the victim was stabbed and his body dismembered and burned.

Mario Chagolla Jr. is now scheduled to go on trial in federal court later this year in the gruesome 2013 killing of Dwayne Beauty during a card game on the Yavapai-Apache reservation about 90 miles north of Phoenix.

Authorities said he was stabbed to death before the body parts were dismembered with a circular saw and pliers, and burned in a barrel and stove.

The case is emblematic of the troubles that prosecutors face in trying to secure convictions for crimes on American Indian reservations, where rampant alcoholism and crime can make it difficult to develop reliable evidence and witness testimony. Prosecutors and Chagolla's attorneys say the handful of people gathered at a home before Beauty's death all were drinking heavily, gave inconsistent statements to law enforcement and likely played a role in getting rid of Beauty's body. None of the witnesses called police to report Beauty's death.

Prosecutors also were burdened by not having much physical evidence because no knife with Beauty's blood on it was found, and a circular saw in Chagolla's car that authorities first believed he used to dismember the victim had no blood on it.

With little evidence and unreliable witness testimony, they allowed Chagolla to plead guilty to a lesser count of voluntary manslaughter and agreed to a sentence of 10 years in prison.

"The strength of the evidence in this case, or lack thereof, is a critical factor here," prosecutors wrote in court documents.

U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa rejected the deal this month, saying the sentence wasn't harsh enough, according to Chagolla's attorney, James Belanger.

Prosecutors acknowledged that while 10 years appear lenient, that's largely because of what happened to Beauty after he died, including having his teeth pulled out and burned in a wood stove along with his hands. But Belanger said there's no credible evidence Chagolla was responsible for the dismemberment.

The prosecution and defense urged the judge to accept the plea with the 10-year sentence. Belanger said the judge was willing to accept a voluntary manslaughter plea but she noted the sentence wasn't tough enough. Voluntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, while first-degree murder has a life sentence upon conviction.

A trial is scheduled to begin in November. Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, said both sides still have options to resolve the case without a trial.

Published: Wed, Sep 23, 2015