JEFFERSON CITY— A Missouri woman who as a teenager wrote that killing a young neighbor was an "ahmazing" thrill asked a judge on Thursday to overturn her guilty plea, saying she made it under the fear of spending a lifetime in prison.
Alyssa Bustamante isn't asserting she is innocent in the 2009 slaying of 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten. But Bustamante testified that she wouldn't have accepted a plea deal if she had known a pending U.S. Supreme Court case could have wiped out the potential for her to receive an automatic life sentence without parole.
"I couldn't wrap my mind around it. It was just," Bustamante said, pausing and biting her lip while on the witness seat, "hopelessness."
Bustamante, who turned 20 on Tuesday, was 15 years old when she lured Elizabeth into the woods near their homes just west of Jefferson City. She then strangled the girl, sliced her throat and stabbed her.
On the night of the killing, Bustamante wrote in her diary that it was an "ahmazing" and "pretty enjoyable" experience.
Bustamante was charged as an adult with first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Shortly before she was to go to trial, Bustamante pleaded guilty in January 2012 to a reduced charge of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to life with a chance of parole.
She also pleaded guilty to armed criminal action for using a knife in the slaying and received an additional 30-year sentence to run at the conclusion of her life sentence. Under Missouri guidelines, she must serve 35 years and five months before being eligible for parole.
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's new attorney, Gary Brotherton, argued on Thursday that her original attorneys were ineffective for not making it clear to Bustamante that the Supreme Court was considering whether to invalidate the mandatory life sentence that she feared.
Bustamante testified that she didn't know about the case and didn't understand many of the legal issues her attorneys talked about.
But Charles Moreland, one of the two attorneys who originally handled Bustamante's case, said they had talked to her about the issues involved in the pending Supreme Court case, even if they didn't cite it by name.
Moreland said Bustamante had "stood a very strong risk of being found guilty" of first-degree murder had her case gone to a jury. Their goal was to get a reduced charge that would "give her the best chance of someday getting out."
By pleading guilty to second-degree murder and avoiding a jury, Moreland said, defense attorneys were able to shift the focus of Bustamante's sentencing hearing at least partly away from Elizabeth and onto the mental health issues that had troubled Bustamante.
Moreland and fellow defense attorney Donald Catlett said they outlined the prosecutor's plea offer during a jailhouse conversation with Bustamante. The offer had a deadline, so she only had a couple days to decide. Bustamante accepted it that same day and pleaded guilty in court the next day.
"They said I could go think about it, but the urgency they expressed made me feel like I couldn't," she said.
Bustamante appeared in court Thursday in an orange prison outfit with shackles linking her ankles and binding her wrists to her waist. She sat straight, appearing more poised than she did during her sentencing hearing two years ago. The grandmother who raised her sat silently on a courtroom bench a couple of rows behind her.
Elizabeth's mother, Patty Preiss, sat on the opposite side of the courtroom, wearing a sweatshirt with her daughter's smiling photo inside of a heart and the words: "Always Loved, Never Forgotten."
Prosecutor Mark Richardson said in an interview before the hearing that Bustamante's claims "do not have any merit" and her original sentence should stand.
"Generally, they're very big long shots to try to prove that somehow some bad advice caused a person to plead guilty when they otherwise wouldn't have," Richardson said.
Judge Pat Joyce, who also presided over Bustamante's guilty plea and sentencing, gave her attorney 30 days to submit additional written arguments before deciding on the request to set aside her guilty plea.
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 killed her there. After hundreds of volunteers searched for two days, Bustamante led authorities to Elizabeth's buried body about a half-mile from Bustamante's house.