Plea deal for Atwater inmate angers slain prison guard's family

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comMarch 11, 2014 

— The family of a slain correctional officer criticized federal prosecutors Tuesday for cutting a deal allowing one of the men charged in his killing to avoid the death penalty.

James Ninete Leon Guerrero, 48, of Guam, pleaded guilty on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fresno to a single count of murder for his role in Rivera’s death. U.S. District Judge Phillip Pro accepted the plea agreement, permitting Guerrero to serve life in prison.

Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran, was killed June 8, 2008, in U.S. Penitentiary Atwater after two men attacked him with an 8-inch homemade shank, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

News of the plea agreement surfaced last month.

The plea agreement incensed Jose Rivera’s mother, Terry, a 47-year-old Merced resident.

“The whole system failed my family, my son, me,” Terry Rivera told the Sun-Star on Tuesday. “It’s so unfair; I was hoping for justice for my son. This just isn’t right.”

According to a copy of the plea agreement, Guerrero tackled Rivera and held him down; co-defendant Jose Cabrera Sablan is suspected of stabbing and slashing him28 times with the makeshift weapon.

Sablan, 46, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges and is scheduled to go to trial next year, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Guerrero will be sentenced to life in prison without parole when he appears in court again May 30. At the time of Rivera’s death, Guerrero was serving a life sentence on a third-strike felony conviction for conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery in Guam, according to the plea agreement.

Sablan is serving a life prison sentence for a prior murder in Guam, the plea agreement states.

Rivera’s family wanted the death penalty for both men and said Guerrero’s plea deal “sends a terrible message to other inmates.”

“For a person who dedicated his whole life to the federal government, it’s not right for the government not to have Jose’s back at the end of all this,” Rivera’s uncle, Samuel Rivera, said Tuesday. “He took someone’s life, he helped take someone’s lif. He (Guerrero) deserves to die too.”

Attorneys on both sides of the case said Guerrero’s mental capacity made him ineligible for capital punishment.

“When it was clear that a death penalty could not be brought successfully due to various competency issues, the decision was made to agree to a life sentence,” Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Horwood said. “At least now we have the assurance that Guerrero will never live as a free man.”

Terry Rivera brushed off the competency issues raised by the attorneys.

“If there was mental health issues, then why wasn’t he in an institution or hospital?” she asked.

The Rivera family said they wished prosecutors had consulted them more before plea bargaining.

“It feels like the prisoners have more rights than us, more access with documents, more privileges than our family,” Samuel Rivera said. “I think this just shows career criminals that it’s OK to kill correctional officers and that’s totally, totally unacceptable.”

Horwood said attorneys worked “long hours” to “bring some semblance of justice to the senseless and tragic killing of a young man.”

“Officer Rivera’s family will continue to grieve his loss, as do so many others,” Horwood said. “Thoughts of Officer Rivera and his service to his country were foremost in the mind of all involved in this prosecution.”

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2482.

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