Prosecutors challenge Stanislaus County judge’s ruling in carjacking-murder case

FILE PHOTO — Turlock Diaz reacts to his sentencing in March 2015, at the Stanislaus Superior Courthouse in Modesto.
FILE PHOTO — Turlock Diaz reacts to his sentencing in March 2015, at the Stanislaus Superior Courthouse in Modesto.

Prosecutors are challenging a Stanislaus County judge’s ruling that a 14-year-old tried as an adult for murder must be retried as a juvenile under a new state law.

Turlock Diaz, now 23, was sentenced to 52 years and six months to life in prison for the death of 21-year-old Chaz Bettencourt. Prosecutors said Diaz shot Bettencourt twice in the chest at close range in a botched carjacking outside a Riverbank convenience store.

A state appellate court ruling has reversed Diaz’s conviction and sentence. The case was sent back to Stanislaus County, where a juvenile court judge would decide whether Diaz should have been prosecuted as an adult.

Judge Ruben Villalobos last week determined that state Senate Bill 1391 dictates that Diaz cannot be prosecuted as adult. SB 1391 — signed into law by Gov. Jerry brown in September — eliminated the ability to prosecute any minor younger than 16 years old as an adult, according to the judge’s filed ruling. The law is retroactive.

“Therefore, if SB 1391 applies here, no trial of this former minor in adult criminal court can have occurred, and this court must deny transfer,” Villalobos wrote in his Jan. 16 ruling.

This means Diaz could be set free after serving a few years in prison for killing Bettencourt.

In a petition for appeal filed Tuesday, the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office argued that California voters approved Proposition 57 because it provided meaningful juvenile justice reform. But the prosecutors say that law had limits with mechanisms to protect the public from violent offenders.

“Individuals such as Turlock Hernan Diaz were not expected or intended to be free from adult consequences for their violent acts,” according to the petition submitted by Deputy District Attorney Jon Appleby.

Michelle Bettencourt and son, Chaz Bettencourt.jpg
Michelle Bettencourt and her son, Chaz Bettencourt. Michelle Bettencourt

SB 1391 — the law enacted by the state Legislature — is in direct opposition to what the voters wanted in Proposition 57, the prosecutor said in the petition. He said a gun crime, such as Bettencourt’s murder, was never intended to be in juvenile court.

“When the Legislature and the governor attempt to subvert the right of the people to directly enact laws through the initiative process, the judiciary is the only place left to which the people can have their rights vindicated,” Appleby wrote.

At a hearing Thursday morning, Villalobos had intended to determine what happens next to Diaz. The court has to treat Diaz’s conviction as juvenile adjudications and re-sentence him as a minor. But Thursday’s hearing didn’t go as planned.

The judge was informed Wednesday afternoon that the state’s Fifth District Court of Appeal had stayed the hearing until it can review the appeal from the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. The prosecutors are asking the appellate court to overturn Villalobos’ ruling that determined SB 1391 was constitutional.

“There’s nothing I can do until the court of appeal takes action in this case,” Villalobos said from the bench during Thursday’s brief hearing.

Diaz attended Thursday’s hearing, returning to Stanislaus County for the first time since he was sent to prison nearly four years ago. He entered the courtroom wearing a black-and-white jail inmate jumpsuit and shackled handcuffs on his wrists and ankles. He sat quietly next to his attorneys, Martin Baker and Bruce Perry.

On April 7, 2015, Diaz was admitted to Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad. On Thursday, Baker said Diaz prefers to be returned to the prison and return to Stanislaus Superior Court when needed. The judge granted the defense attorney’s request.

Challenging SB 1391

Michelle Bettencourt, the victim’s mother, said that she wants to gather other families of victims who are facing similar circumstances and lobby state leaders to overturn new laws reducing punishments for underage violent offenders, such as SB 1391.

“He’s not going to win,” she said after Thursday’s hearing.

She has told The Modesto Bee that these laws reforming the prosecution of minors re-victimizes families who had assumed justice had been served in the deaths of their loved ones. She’s also said that she’s afraid Diaz will commit another deadly crime if he’s released.

The deadly shooting occurred about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010. Bettencourt and friend David Gomez were leaving the AM-PM mini-mart on Patterson and Oakdale roads, when they were accosted at gunpoint. Authorities said the defendants were trying to steal Gomez’s car when Bettencourt was shot.

Diaz was one of three teenagers charged in Bettencourt’s death: the others were Daniel Pantoja and Jah-Kari Phyall. Pantoja was 18 when Bettencourt was killed, and Phyall was 15. Like Diaz, Phyall was prosecuted as an adult.

Turlock Diaz at age 14.jpg
Turlock Diaz at age 14 when he was arrested in the shooting death of Chaz Bettencourt, 21, on Aug. 5, 2010, in Riverbank.

In October 2013, a jury found Diaz and Pantoja guilty of first-degree murder and attempted carjacking for their roles in the deadly shooting in front of the AM-PM minimart at Patterson and Oakdale roads. Pantoja was sentenced 27 years six months to life in prison.

The jury, however, acquitted Phyall of all charges related to the shooting. The jurors determined Phyall, who was with Diaz and Pantoja during the attempted carjacking, was not responsible for the crimes.

Pantoja, now 26, on Monday remained incarcerated at California Correctional Institution, a prison in Tehachapi. He will become eligible for parole in July 2034.

Proposition 57

Diaz was 19 in March 2015, when he was sentenced for Bettencourt’s murder. In November 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, which shifted to the court the authority to decide if a minor could be prosecuted as an adult. Before that, prosecutors had the discretion to decide whether a child should be prosecuted as an adult.

SB 1391 took it a step further. Now, no minors younger than 16 can be prosecuted as adults. The law went into effect earlier this month and is part of a movement to keep children out of jail and emphasize rehabilitation for minors.

Prosecutors in Diaz’s case argued that SB 1391 was unconstitutional, because it was not consistent with the intent of Proposition 57.

“The crux of the (prosecution’s) argument is that Proposition 57 promised voters that a juvenile (court) judge would have discretion to decided whether any minor should be tried in adult court, but SB 1391 removes that discretion, thereby rendering it unconstitutional,” Villalobos wrote in his ruling.

But the judge said that the voter-approved proposition included language that allows for amendments consistent with its intent, as long as those are laws passed by a majority vote of each house in the state Legislature and signed by the governor. Villalobos said SB 1391 fulfilled these requirements.

Proposition 57 was in part to emphasize rehabilitation for underage offenders by requiring a judge to decide whether he or she can be prosecuted in adult court.

“Another way to accomplish the same purpose is to prevent the trial of minors under age 16 from being tried in adult court under any circumstances,” Villalobos wrote in his ruling.

The judge did not reschedule the hearing. He said he has to wait for the appellate court’s decision.

Diaz and his attorneys have 20 days to submit an informal response to the prosecutors’ petition for appeal, according to the order from the appellate court. Then, the prosecutors are allowed to file an informal reply to the defense within 10 days.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.