SALT LAKE CITY — A Magna teenager admitted Tuesday that he shot and killed a man when he was 15 following a fight on a bus.
As part of a plea deal, Marqus Paul James, now 16, pleaded guilty in juvenile court to firing a weapon at another person, a third-degree felony. The teen then waived a certification hearing before moving to an adult courtroom to plead guilty to manslaughter with a gang enhancement, making it a first-degree felony.
"One thing led to another and I did something I really regret," James said at the juvenile sentencing, wearing an oversized gray sweatshirt and looking like a small boy despite the shackles on his hands. "If I could go back and change it, I would. If I could trade places with him, I would."
James was originally charged in juvenile court with murder, a first-degree felony, and three counts of felony discharge of a firearm, a second-degree felony, in the shooting death of Marcos Cardenas, 22.
With the charges split between juvenile and adult court, James will be confined in a youth facility until he is eventually sentenced for the manslaughter charge. Doing so allows him to remain in juvenile custody, possibly until his 21st birthday, before facing incarceration in an adult facility.
The manslaughter charge carries a potential sentence of five years to life in prison. A review date in the case was set for Oct. 21, 2016.
A similar plea deal was negotiated in 2nd District Court last year in the case of 16-year-old Aza Vidinhar, who pleaded guilty to murder after stabbing his two younger brothers to death. Convicted of one murder charge as a juvenile and another as an adult, Vidinhar was initially sentenced to a youth facility with the intention of ordering him to prison when he turned 21. However, the arrangement was revoked and he was sent to prison earlier this year after attacking another boy in the juvenile facility.
Vidinhar's sentence was believed to be the first of its kind in Utah state court history.
James was 15 when he got in an argument with Cardenas on a bus in West Valley City June 10. The two agreed to get off the bus near 3500 South and 5600 West to fight, which is when James pulled out a gun that he claims he found in an unattended backpack after running away from a group home.
"The guy hit me and I got scared, and I pulled it out just to scare him," James said Tuesday. He then fired several shots, one of which hit and killed Cardenas, before fleeing into a nearby field and tossing the weapon.
James told 3rd District Juvenile Judge Dane Nolan that he was frightened. He said he didn't want to fight and was hoping that someone would intervene or tell him not to get off as he proceeded to the front doors of the bus while Cardenas exited at another door.
"I thought somebody would do something on the bus but no one did anything," James said. "Everybody was looking at me. Nobody said anything."
Nolan, however, emphasized to James that he was not a victim of circumstance.
"That's not how I see it," Nolan said. "You made choices. … It could have been avoided by you, and you chose not to do that. You chose to have that gun and you chose to get into that fight. You chose to use the weapon, to pull the trigger."
Cardenas' mother, Malinda Jaramillo, mourned the loss of her oldest son, whose birth she said prompted her to make positive changes in her life and take responsibility for her family.
"It's not fair that Marqus gets to be here and my son Marcos doesn't," she said. "He was such a joyful kid. He had some issues, he had some learning disabilities, and he didn't understand everything that was going on around him."
The thought that Cardenas' death was the result of a gang-related argument "over colors and neighborhoods" was especially troubling to his older stepbrother, Raymond Jaramillo.
"This whole gang lifestyle is ridiculous," he told Nolan through tears.
Jaramillo explained that his biological mother had ruined her life and lost touch with her family through her drug use and gang involvement. In their new blended family, when his father married Cardenas' mother, he and his siblings had avoided the path their biological mother had followed.
Due to mental limitations, however, Cardenas was "easily manipulated" and had been drawn to a perceived sense of belonging through involvement with gangs, family members said.
"We don't get a future with him," Jaramillo said. "All we have is a memory, an anniversary of his death, and that's all we get."