Trial date set for pair accused in slaying of USP Atwater correctional officer

Sun-Star Washington D.C. correspondentMarch 15, 2013 

The two inmates accused of killing federal correctional officer Jose Rivera at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater are now set to go on trial in July 2014, more than six years after the brutal slaying that was partially captured on prison videotape.

It's a long wait, vexing to some, but not unique. Another accused Atwater prison killer, who prosecutors say murdered his cellmate in 2003, is also awaiting a 2014 trial date. Time elapsed from alleged crime to final verdict: Nine years.

The long delays reflect, in part, the many complications involved in capital murder cases. In both of the alleged Atwater prison murders, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

In the Jose Rivera case, moreover, prosecutors and defense attorneys had both wanted even more time, proposing that trial start in early 2015. But in a ruling quietly issued earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Philip M. Pro declared that the Rivera case "has already suffered" sufficient delay over the past five years due to a combination of procedural complications and a pre-trial appeal over a mental competency hearing.

"During this time, counsel for the defendants have had ample time to conduct pre-trial and mitigation investigation and discovery, have consulted with numerous experts, and (could) develop a close working relationship with their clients,” Pro wrote in the March 1 ruling.

The setting of the trial date for defendants Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero also lays the groundwork for a crucial set of other pre-trial questions, which include: Will the Justice Department continue to pursue the death penalty against Leon Guerrero? Attorneys for Leon Guerrero have indicated they will file a motion declaring that he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible, under a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, for the death penalty.

The Justice Department now has until mid-October to conduct its own examination and figure out its position, with death penalty calls ultimately going all the way up to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Will there be one trial or two? Currently, the case is unified, but each inmate has his own defense team, and by mid-May they could file motions to sever the proceedings.

Defense attorneys pointedly noted in one recent legal filing that a determination that Leon Guerrero is ineligible for the death penalty would “likely result in a plea agreement” for him and hence, the necessity of only one trial, for Sablan.

Will the trial, or trials, be moved out of the federal courthouse in Fresno? Currently, the case is before the Eastern District of California, but by mid-May, defense attorneys can file motions for a change of venue in an effort to avoid jurors potentially tainted by widespread media coverage of Rivera's 2008 murder.

Rivera was a 22-year-old Navy veteran working as a guard at the maximum security Atwater prison on June 20, 2008. Sablan and Leon Guerrero, both natives of Samoa, were serving life sentences.

Both inmates appear to have been intoxicated on prison brew when they attacked Rivera, chased him down when he ran and tackled him, according to a subsequent federal Bureau of Prisons Board of Inquiry report.

"Sablan got on top of officer Rivera and began to strike officer Rivera with the ice pick type weapon approximately eight times in the torso until the arrival of the first staff on the scene," the report stated.

Two of Sablan's defense attorneys, meanwhile, are also defending Samuel Richard Stone, who was indicted last year on charges of murdering a fellow Atwater inmate named Michael Anita.

The alleged murder in Cell 121 occurred early in the morning of July 23, 2003. Stone's trial is set to start in 2014, 11 years after the events in question. The Justice Department is seeking the death penalty against Stone, who was already serving a life sentence. “Mr. Stone made statements to correctional officers and the FBI taking sole responsibility for the death of Mr. Anita,” a summary signed by both prosecutors and defense attorneys stated.

Prosecutors say Anita had been stabbed approximately 17 times. A pencil had been forced into one eye, and a pen forced into the other. His neck was slashed, apparently in the attacker's effort to remove a tattoo.

But defense attorneys, noting what they characterize as an inexplicably long delay between Anita’s death and the bringing of charges, have also cited their client's complicated past that’s taken time to sort out.

"Mr. Stone mostly grew up in the Gila River Indian Community, where he survived years of trauma that included sexual abuse and severe neglect," Stone’s attorneys wrote in one legal filing, adding that "the scope of these developmental experiences and their ongoing consequences are being investigated."

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