Defendants in woman's slaying return to court

Merced Sun Star || 24-Dec-2010

Attorneys get time to review information about the case.

MERCED - The couple accused in the brutal killing Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja and the abduction of her 2-month-old son were in court Thursday morning.

Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 33, and her husband, Jose Augustine Velarde, 37, were escorted into the courtroom separately, both handcuffed and wearing yellow jail uniforms. Robles looked around the room as she sat in front of Judge Frank Dougherty.

The pre-preliminary hearing was the couple’s first in-person court appearance. Their arraignment hearing last week was via television conference, with their images on a monitor broadcast from a live video feed at the jail.

There was little movement in the case during Thursday’s hearing, and Dougherty set a Feb. 7 court date to allow attorneys a chance to review the details surrounding the allegations.

Jeffrey Tenenbaum, an attorney appointed by the court to represent Robles, said the matter was postponed to allow attorneys to receive all documents and further evaluate the case.

The couple has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police during their arraignment.

“Obviously, it’s a serious matter, and we are going to take it seriously,” Tenenbaum said.

The two were arrested Dec.15, 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. At first, the couple intended to keep the infant as their own, Merced County sheriff’s detectives said.

The infant has been reunited with his family.

The couple could face the death penalty for the crime. The Merced County District Attorney’s Office will evaluate the case to determine if that sentence would be appropriate.

Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard and Chief Deputy Public Defender Vincent Andrade are representing Velarde. Howard said Chief Deputy Public Defender Eric Dumars and Public Defender Mike Pro are helping in the case.

“A case of this magnitude takes a group effort,” Howard said. He said they don’t have much on the case at this point. They are hoping that the Merced County District Attorney’s Office doesn’t seek the death penalty.

“If they do it, it will affect everyone,” Howard said.

Velarde came to the United States from Nayarit, Mexico, nine years ago, and has been employed ever since, Howard said, adding that he was not in a position to comment on his client’s legal status.

Velarde worked in the almond industry in Planada, Howard said, and described him as hardworking.

Howard said Velarde appears to have had no criminal record before his arrest.

Tenenbaum said he wasn’t sure where Robles is originally from, but that she is a lawful permanent U.S. resident. According to the information he has, Tenenbaum said, Robles also appears not to have a criminal record before her arrest.

Both defendants are being held without bail.

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