In an unusual move—at least for those of us who primarily follow state cases—a federal judge in downtown Phoenix rejected a plea deal the government and defense reached in a murder case. Plea agreements must be approved by the judge and the proposed sentence in this one was just too low, according to the judge. The deal was a plea to the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter in exchange for 10 years. After refusing to accept what everyone else involved thinks is fair late last week, the judge set November 10 for trial. The parties, however, may still work out a deal. The defendant has already pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. It’s now just a question of sentence.

Here’s what happened in the underlying case:

Mario Chagolla, Jr. murdered Dwayne Beauty in Camp Verde, Arizona on June 16, 2013 within the territory of the Yavapai-Apache Nation Indian Reservation. (NOTE: Camp Verde is where James Ray was tried for manslaughter in the Sedona sweat lodge deaths of 3 women. I spent several weeks in 2011 at that trial.)

Chagolla, Beauty and two others were drinking and playing cards at a private home. At one point, Chagolla attacked Beauty because Beauty had allegedly killed Kathy Englund—the girlfriend of one of the men present that day. (The cause of Englund’s death three months earlier was ruled alcohol toxicity.) While Beauty was passed out, Chagolla ducted-tied him and stabbed him several times. He then took a circular saw and cut off Beauty’s head, hands and legs. The rest of the facts are so gross, I’ll just let you read them in the complaint and affidavit below.

Chagolla Complaint

As the government explains in the following sentencing memorandum, its case relied on witnesses with a history of substance abuse who were inconsistent in the details. (Clearly, their credibility would have been—or will be—challenged at trial, if no acceptable deal is reached by November 10.) That’s why a deal was offered.

Chagolla Presentence Memorandum

Chagolla Sentencing Memorandum

This case is pending in federal court because it occurred on the grounds of the Yavapai-Apache Nation Indian Reservation and Chagolla is not Native American. Also, as noted in the sentencing memo, the sentencing guidelines calculate his sentence range differently because he is non-Native American. See this passage:

It is also important to note that while the defendant’s criminal history is not unlike many criminal histories seen in other Indian Country cases, because the defendant is not Native American and did not reside on the reservation, his convictions are counted in his criminal history category, which would not be the case if he was Native American with only tribal convictions.

Tribal Law is complicated in terms of who has jurisdiction and I’m certainly no expert. In my research, I found an interesting 2013 article from The Atlantic about a rape on a reservation in North Dakota which lays out the issues.  Click here to read it. The bottom line is that the federal government is supposed to prosecute serious crimes on reservations but many cases go uncharged. Tribal nations are considered parallel sovereignties, as are the individual states, but we all fall under the umbrella of the federal government.

Meanwhile, I suspect that Chagolla will not go to trial in November and that both sides will work out a deal that the judge will accept.