An Ajo man facing a potential death sentence in the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl rejected a plea agreement Thursday morning, saying he deserves to die.
Loretto "Kyle" Alegria, 21, is scheduled to go to trial in April on rape, kidnapping and first-degree murder charges in the death of Rhia Almeida in June 2009.
In Pima County Superior Court, Judge Deborah Bernini scheduled a change-of-plea hearing after being told Alegria was willing to plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in prison.
In the end, however, Alegria told Bernini he was not going to sign the agreement.
Bernini spent close to 30 minutes coaxing Alegria to tell her why he didn't want to sign it, and then, upon learning his reason, urging him to sign it anyway.
"I need to understand why you are going forward with a lengthy trial with dozens and dozens of witnesses, rather than today having some control over how all of this ends," Bernini told Alegria.
She was aware the plea called for him to get a life sentence, Bernini said.
"Are you trying to make things worse for yourself?" Bernini asked.
Alegria often wouldn't answer Bernini's questions or would just shake his head.
He indicated he understood what Bernini was saying, knows he has caused a lot of people pain and he's sorry, but insisted he wasn't going to sign the agreement.
It was only after Bernini asked him if he was hesitating because he would be required to discuss what he did, that Alegria divulged his reason for not moving forward.
"I don't deserve to live," Alegria said. "I deserve the max."
Bernini said she disagreed, but she offered to amend the plea agreement so Alegria could plead guilty but go through a normal aggravation/mitigation sentencing phase with death being an option. He indicated he didn't want to do that either.
She urged Alegria to consider that if he insists on going to trial, he will be putting the victim's family, his parents and his 10-year-old brother through a six-week ordeal that might not end with the result he wants - death.
"This is the only gift you can offer this family," Bernini said of the plea agreement.
Alegria said he was sorry.
"Tell me what you're sorry for," Bernini said.
"For being alive," Alegria said.
"Don't you think life in prison is punishment enough?" Bernini asked.
Alegria shook his head no.
When Alegria begged Bernini not to "drag out" the hearing any longer, Bernini reminded him that his trial will "drag out" for six weeks.
Alegria again insisted he wasn't going to sign the agreement, and as he was led from the courtroom, his family and the victim's family began crying harder.
Rhia was beaten and stabbed to death when she went to visit Alegria's little brother to play, authorities say.
Her body was found in a wash behind Alegria's home by two girls riding their bicycles two hours after Rhia left home.
Assistant Pima County Public Defender Darlene Edminson-O'Brien and co-counsel Walter Palser declined to comment after the hearing.
Before the hearing, the judge barred The Arizona Daily Star from photographing Alegria. She agreed with defense attorneys, who argued Alegria's safety might be compromised at the Arizona Department of Corrections if his image becomes known. They also said a camera might inhibit his ability to talk about his actions the day Rhia died, something he was required to do as part of the plea agreement.
Edminson-O'Brien described Alegria's mental status as "fragile," noting he has spent most of the last two years in the jail's mental-health unit.
Last month, the defense attorneys indicated they wanted Alegria to undergo testing to see if he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.
Deputy Pima County Attorney Susan Eazer said Alegria was offered a plea agreement in part because it's unclear what the results of those tests might be. In addition, a plea agreement would offer "finality and closure" to Rhia's family, especially since defendants waive their right to an appeal when they enter plea agreements.
Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or firstname.lastname@example.org