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Judge denies new trial in slaying of Missouri girl

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DAVID A. LIEB | March 10, 2014 05:52 PM EST | AP

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A judge has denied a new trial for a young Missouri woman who pleaded guilty to murder for the slaying of a 9-year-old neighbor girl but later sought a do-over because of a U.S. Supreme Court case invalidating mandatory life sentences for juveniles.

Alyssa Bustamante was 15 years old in 2009 when she killed Elizabeth Olten and buried her in a wooded area west of Jefferson City. Bustamante wrote in her diary that it was an "ahmazing" and "pretty enjoyable" experience.

She originally was charged with first-degree murder, which would have carried a mandatory life sentence without parole. But shortly before her 2012 trial, Bustamante pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed criminal action. She was sentenced on the murder charge to life in prison with the chance of parole, plus 30 years for the other charge.

Several months after Bustamante pleaded guilty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that juveniles cannot face automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Bustamante then got a new attorney, who claimed her original public defenders were ineffective. At a court hearing in January, the now 20-year-old Bustamante testified that she wouldn't have accepted the plea deal had she known about the possibility for the nation's high court to wipe out mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

But Charles Moreland, one of her original attorneys, testified that they had talked to her about the issues pending before the Supreme Court. He said Bustamante "stood a very strong risk of being found guilty" by jurors of first-degree murder had she not pleaded guilty to the lesser charge.

Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce wrote in a decision dated Thursday, but released Monday, that Bustamante's request to set aside her guilty plea and sentence was "meritless" and her original attorneys weren't deficient.

Joyce, who also presided over Bustamante's original case, wrote that the evidence against her "was both strong and aggravating." The judge found that Bustamante would have pleaded guilty to second-degree murder "regardless of the advice of her attorneys, and her testimony otherwise is not credible."

An attorney for Bustamante did not immediately return a telephone message Monday.

Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson said Monday that Bustamante had committed "an adult-like crime" and received "an adult-like punishment," which he said was appropriate.

"Just because that sentencing hearing went badly for her in terms of more years than maybe she expected, that's not a reason for a judge to allow a defendant to withdraw their plea," Richardson said.

Under Missouri guidelines, Bustamante must serve at least 35 years and five months before being eligible for parole.

Evidence presented during Bustamante's 2012 sentencing hearing revealed she had dug a shallow grave in the woods several days before the slaying and used her younger sister to lure Elizabeth with an invitation to play. Bustamante said she had a surprise for Elizabeth in the forest but instead strangled her, sliced her throat and stabbed her.

After hundreds of volunteers searched for two days, Bustamante led authorities to Elizabeth's buried body about a half-mile from Bustamante's house.

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