Eduardo Marmolejo, an 18-year-old student at Memphis Junior Academy in East Memphis, agrees to a guilty plea in Judge W. Mark Ward's court at the Shelby County Justice Center. (AP photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Memphis teen who police say studied close-combat battle tactics and sharpened his knife the night before he fatally stabbed his high school principal pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Tuesday.
Eduardo Marmolejo, 18, told Criminal Court Judge W. Mark Ward that he accepted a plea deal and a 35-year sentence without parole. He then apologized to the family of Suzette York, whom he stabbed multiple times and left for dead in a pool of blood in a classroom on Aug. 10, 2011.
"I apologize for my bad behavior," Marmolejo said. "I'm not the same man I used to be. I'm a better man."
Marmolejo was charged with first-degree murder after the attack on York, 49, on the third day of school two years ago. York was Marmolejo's principal at Memphis Junior Academy, a private school affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Marmolejo was 16 at the time of the killing, but a juvenile court judge determined that the teen should be tried as an adult. He was indicted in February 2012.
Prosecutor Reggie Henderson and defense attorney Leslie Ballin disclosed weeks ago that they were working on a plea deal. As part of the deal, Marmolejo agreed to a sentence that is longer than the 15-year to 25-year sentence he would have faced upon conviction at trial.
Henderson said he was confident that a trial would have resulted in a conviction, but he took into consideration the wishes of York's husband in pursuing a deal and avoiding a trial.
"The evidence was overwhelming," Henderson said. "A confession, forensic evidence, it was a very, very strong case."
Homicide detectives testified at a September 2011 juvenile court hearing that Marmolejo confessed to stabbing York after planning the killing for months. Police said Marmolejo studied combat tactics, including how to stab someone in order to prevent the victim from screaming.
York was stabbed about nine times at different angles, an autopsy showed. Her jugular vein and spinal cord were cut, and she suffered a fractured skull.
Marmolejo told investigators he was angry with York and that he knew he would be alone with her in a classroom.
Marmolejo changed clothes and tried to get rid of the knife he used in the killing by flushing it down a school toilet, detectives said. Police recovered a black SWAT folding knife with a blade about 3 ½ inches long and about 1 inch wide.
Ballin had said that he wasn't certain Marmolejo could follow the legal process ahead of him, including a trial. A psychologist testified in juvenile court that the teen was unable to communicate rationally with his attorneys and sometimes lapsed into a fantasy world in which he thought he was a soldier.
However, psychological evaluations done later in adult court showed the teen was mentally capable to stand trial.
Ballin called Marmolejo a loner who still may still have psychological issues to deal with.
"There are no winners in this case," Ballin said. "It's just a tragedy from A to Z."
Marmolejo has been in jail since the stabbing. His mother said in Spanish that she was pleased with the agreement.
"We are with Jesus, and he has given us the strength to survive this," Marcela Rodriguez said outside of court.
During the hearing, the judge asked the teen if he understood the plea deal, and Marmolejo responded, "Yes, sir." Marmolejo then told the court that there is too much school violence in this world.
"Instead of thinking and trying to make it better, I made it worse," he said. "I'm now in a better state of mind."