Alyssa Bustamante is not entitled to a new trial because her public defenders were not ineffective, a state appeals court ruled today.
The three-judge panel of the court's Kansas City division also found Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce correctly rejected the teen's appeal of her second-degree murder conviction and life prison sentence.
Bustamante was 15 on Oct. 21, 2009, when she killed Elizabeth Olten, 9, a neighbor and friend of Bustamante's younger sister.
After being certified to stand trial as an adult on a first-degree murder charge, she was represented by two lawyers from the state public defender system's capital division.
In January 2012, two weeks before her trial was to begin, those lawyers - Donald Catlett and Charles Moreland - recommended she accept a prosecutor's offer to plead guilty to second-degree murder, which she did.
On Feb. 8, 2012, after a sentencing hearing, Joyce ordered Bustamante - then 18 - to serve a life sentence for the murder conviction, to be followed by a 30-year sentence for her armed criminal action conviction.
In March 2014, Joyce rejected Bustamante's arguments Catlett and Moreland should have told her the U.S. Supreme Court was about to consider a case in 2012 that could block Missouri from imposing a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a first-degree murder conviction.
In an appeal filed in August 2012, Columbia lawyer Gary E. Brotherton - Bustamante's new attorney - called the advice for a guilty plea a rush to judgment because of the pending U.S. Supreme Court case.
However, the appeals court ruled in a 12-page opinion, Joyce had accepted Bustamante's Jan. 10, 2012, guilty plea after finding she had entered the plea with a full understanding of the charges and the consequences of the plea.
The federal high court didn't hear arguments in the Miller v. Alabama case for almost two months after Bustamante's trial, and didn't rule on it until June 25, 2012 - more than five months after Bustamante pleaded guilty.
The appeals court ruling noted, at her post-conviction motion hearing, Bustamante testified she remembered discussing the plea offer and its risks with Catlett and Moreland, but said she did not understand them.
Joyce ruled that testimony was "not credible."
The appeals court judges also noted Joyce found the evidence against Bustamante "both strong and aggravating," which would not "favor her at any trial." The panel ruled Bustamante's assertion she would have gone to trial was difficult to accept.
The appeals court also rejected Bustamante's argument the state law used to charge her with first-degree murder was unconstitutional, since the later U.S. Supreme Court ruling said states can't give mandatory life-without-parole sentences to juveniles.
The Missouri Supreme Court already has ruled on the same question twice and has noted the U.S. high court ruling only said a life sentence can't be mandatory.
Bustamante, now 21, is serving her sentence at the Missouri Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, Vandalia.