ATWATER — 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 Riveras 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 Riveras 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. Its so unfair; I was hoping for justice for my son. This just isnt 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 Riveras 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.
Riveras family wanted the death penalty for both men and said Guerreros plea deal sends a terrible message to other inmates.
For a person who dedicated his whole life to the federal government, its not right for the government not to have Joses back at the end of all this, Riveras uncle, Samuel Rivera, said Tuesday. He took someones life, he helped take someones lif. He (Guerrero) deserves to die too.
Attorneys on both sides of the case said Guerreros 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 wasnt 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 its OK to kill correctional officers and thats 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 Riveras 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 email@example.com or (209) 385-2482.