WASHINGTON -- Attorneys for one of the inmates accused of killing an unarmed guard at the federal prison in Atwater are having him tested for mental retardation, a step that could save his life.
The lethal Atwater attack, caught on videotape, occurred nearly 4½ years ago. In the latest legal maneuvering, attorneys representing accused killer James Ninete Leon Guerrero have dropped their efforts to have him ruled incompetent to stand trial. A diet of psychotropic drugs has stabilized his mental status, attorneys say.
Instead, the defense team is testing Leon Guerrero for retardation as a likely prelude to asking the Justice Department to reconsider its decision to pursue the death penalty.
"In light of the fact that Mr. Leon Guerrero is presently serving a federal sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, a decision by the United States to withdraw its notice of intent to seek the death penalty would also likely resolve the entire prosecution against Mr. Leon Guerrero," prosecutors and defense attorneys noted in a joint legal filing last week.
The Supreme Court in a 2002 decision banned the execution of mentally retarded defendants. In that case, a Virginia man with a tested IQ of 59 was convicted of abducting, robbing and killing an Air Force enlisted man. An IQ of 70 or below generally casts an individual as mentally retarded.
"Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct," Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the court's 2002 decision.
No trial in '08 slaying
Leon Guerrero and fellow inmate Joseph Cabrera Sablan, whose mental capacity has not been called into question, are accused of killing correctional officer Jose Rivera on June 20, 2008. Neither has faced trial yet in the case, but both men were serving life sentences for other crimes at the time of Rivera's murder.
Citing prison videotape and eyewitnesses at the high-security U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, a Federal Bureau of Prisons' Board of Inquiry said Leon Guerrero tackled Rivera and held him down while Sablan stabbed the 22-year-old Navy veteran repeatedly with a weapon resembling an ice pick. Both inmates had a record of assaulting others behind bars and both appear to have been intoxicated on prison brew at the time, investigators said.
Both defendants have pleaded not guilty. In February 2009, the Justice Department announced its intention to seek the death penalty. This is a high-level decision, which can only be reversed with the approval of the U.S. attorney general.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-0006.