Inmate in Atwater penitentiary murder will get life in plea deal

03/07/2014 9:53 PM

03/11/2014 11:43 PM

One of two inmates who killed a federal correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater will spend the rest of his life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea, under a plea bargain approved by Attorney General Eric Holder.

The deal made public Friday spares James Ninete Leon Guerrero the possibility of a death sentence. It comes after several years of legal maneuvering, in which Leon Guerrero’s attorneys have been preparing to argue that his intellectual disability renders him ineligible for the death penalty.

The plea agreement angered relatives of Jose Rivera, the 22-year-old correctional officer and Navy veteran who was slain at the maximum security penitentiary in 2008.

“I’m very upset,” Samuel Rivera, Jose’s uncle, said in a telephone interview. “This is a slap in the face to my nephew.”

Merced resident Terry Rivera, Jose’s mother, said she was informed of the plea agreement Friday morning in a telephone call from a Washington, D.C.-based Justice Department prosecutor, Bonnie Hannan. Hannan told Rivera that Holder had accepted Leon Guerrero’s plea agreement, which will be followed up with a court hearing Tuesday.

“It’s like slapping him on the hand,” Terry Rivera said in a telephone interview. “He murdered Jose, and he should get the death penalty.”

Late Friday afternoon, the Justice Department filed a two-page court document stating the plea agreement had been reached.

Videotape from the Atwater penitentiary shows the three-minute-long incident on June 20, 2008, which reportedly included Leon Guerrero and fellow inmate Joseph Cabrera Sablan chasing Rivera. They tackled the unarmed officer, and Leon Guerrero reportedly restrained him while Sablan stabbed him.

“I think he clearly had an intention of hurting him, by holding him down,” Samuel Rivera said.

Defense attorneys acknowledged in an earlier legal filing that “Sablan suddenly stabbed Officer Rivera with the approximately 9-inch-long, ice pick-shaped shank while Officer Rivera was locking Mr. Leon Guerrero in his cell.”

Though Sablan ended up stabbing Rivera “approximately 27 times,” the defense attorneys wrote, they say that Sablan “did not intend to kill him and has repeatedly expressed his remorse and regret for having done so.”

Sablan will still face trial, and potentially the death sentence if he is convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.

“They both committed the murder,” Terry Rivera said, “and they should both be prosecuted.”

Leon Guerrero’s plea agreement was reached on the brink of a March 11 competency hearing scheduled to be held in Fresno’s federal courthouse, called to assess his current mental status.

One evaluator previously concluded in 2011 that Leon Guerrero exhibited “significant brain impairment, cognitive dysfunction and probable mental retardation,” among other issues. Other evaluators have disagreed, while acknowledging that his childhood was at times brutal.

“Mr. Leon Guerrero was raised in a poor and dysfunctional home,” a psychologist, Dr. Robert L. Denney, wrote in a 78-page report filed in court on Monday. “Violence was the norm in his house.”

The Supreme Court in a 2002 decision banned the execution of what it termed mentally retarded defendants. An IQ of 70 or below, combined with other evidence, is generally required to define an individual as intellectually disabled.

“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,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the decision.

Denney, cautioning that Leon Guerrero’s IQ test scores were inconclusive and possibly misleading, concluded in his newly filed report that “his level of intellectual ability is within the below-average, but above borderline, range.”

Since 1988, the Justice Department has authorized the federal death penalty to be sought against 492 defendants. Of these, Justice withdrew 130 death penalty requests due to a plea agreement, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit monitoring organization.

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