Whether two 16-year-old boys will be tried as adults in last month’s slaying of a 39-year-old woman in the Big Hill area is set to be decided by Tuolumne County Superior Court Presiding Judge Donald Segerstrom at separate hearings on Nov. 20 and Dec. 4.

The county District Attorney’s Office has asked the court to charge the pair as adults in the murder of Dionecia Valencia, whose body was found the morning of Aug. 13 by firefighters and deputies responding to a structure fire on Calle Quartz Road.

Both juveniles were arrested the afternoon of Aug. 13 after being interviewed by Sheriff’s Office detectives. They each have been charged on suspicion of first-degree murder, attempted murder, first-degree residential burglary and arson of an inhabited structure.

Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter said the DA’s Office is seeking to try the boys as adults because the California law allows it for certain crimes, such as murder, and due to the nature of the offense.

“The nature of the offense is really the primary guiding force,” he said.

An autopsy determined that Valencia was stabbed and chopped to death the night before the fire on Aug. 13 in what was described by the Sheriff’s Office as an “ambush-style attack”

Valencia’s body was discovered in a burned area near the dwelling.

The suspects were reportedly seen by deputies walking away from the area while they were responding to the initial structure fire, but they continued to the scene in case anyone needed to be rescued.

Deputies spoke to a woman at the scene who said she was sleeping inside the home when it was set on fire. The woman is considered a victim of the alleged arson, but her identity has not been released.

Hovatter said the Probation Department will submit a report at the hearings on Nov. 20 and Dec. 4 that will contain a variety of factors for the court to consider in determining whether they should be tried as adults.

“We’ll probably have a brief to the court describing our position as to each individual,” he said.

California Welfare and Institutions Code states the factors that the juvenile court must evaluate include the degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the minor, the minor’s potential to be rehabilitated, previous delinquent history, any past attempts by the court to rehabilitate the minor, and the circumstances and gravity of the offense.

The hearings were scheduled at the pair’s most recent court appearance last Friday. They will not enter pleas until after it’s determined whether they will be charged as adults.

Hovatter said both boys have remained in custody at separate facilities since their arrests on Aug. 13.

Each of the teens has been assigned an attorney in the Office of Conflict Counsel, a newly created division of the county’s Public Defender’s Office.

Chief Conflict Counsel Carolyn Woodall was assigned to defend one of the boys, while the other was assigned to Chief Conflict Counsel Ashley Belden due to a conflict of interest with the Public Defender’s Office.

Public Defender Scott Gross said he couldn’t comment on the nature of the conflict with his office.

Woodall said she doesn’t want either juvenile to be tried as an adult because she doesn’t believe a 16-year-old should be charged in the adult system for anything.

“They’re young kids, and the exposure for someone charged with murder could be the rest of his life,” she said. “You get an adult that’s convicted, that’s one thing, but a teenager doesn’t have the same ability to understand the consequences of their actions.”

If convicted as juveniles, they would be released when they turn 25 years old.

District attorneys previously decided whether the juveniles would be tried as adults until California voters handed that authority over the court by passing Proposition 57 in November 2016.

Woodall said she believes the change under Proposition 57 is better because previously the nature of the crime was generally the biggest factor in the decision to charge a juvenile as an adult.

“It considers the totality of the circumstances, who the person is, the chances of them getting rehabilitated,” she said. “It’s not just the severity of the charges.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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