U.S. OKs death penalty in killing of Atwater prison officer

Newly appointed Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty against two inmates at Atwater's high-security federal penitentiary who stabbed and killed a correctional officer last June.

It would be the first federal death-penalty case tried in Fresno in recent memory, according to some local attorneys and judicial officials.

Holder, who won U.S. Senate confirmation in early February, sent a two-paragraph letter to Acting U.S. Attorney Larry Brown that he was "authorized and directed" to seek the death penalty against Jose Cabrera Sablan and James Leon Guerrero.

The two inmates, who are both from Guam, are charged with first-degree murder in the death of Chowchilla resident Jose Rivera, a U.S. Navy veteran who served four years in the military, including two tours in Iraq.

Rivera, 22, died June 20 when Sablan and Guerrero allegedly stabbed him through the heart with a prison-made shank. Both inmates were already serving life sentences for earlier crimes.

Prosecutors said an FBI investigation found that Sablan stabbed Rivera, using an 8-inch, ice pick-type weapon.

Rivera, who had worked at Atwater less than a year, attempted to escape but was chased down by Guerrero, who held him while Sablan repeatedly stabbed him, prosecutors said.

"It is an extraordinarily rare event that the death penalty is sought in the federal courts," Brown said Wednesday. "If there was an appropriate case, this one is it. It was a correctional officer in the line of duty, who was callously murdered by these inmates."

Last August, then-U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced that the two men would face first-degree murder charges. At the time, he called it a death penalty case.

But local officials had to prove that to the Attorney General's Office in Washington, D.C.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Duce Rice prepared a memorandum that outlined the reasons local prosecutors felt the case merited the death penalty.

On Jan. 12, Rice met with the Attorney General's Death Penalty Review Committee, which in turn made the recommendation to Holder.

Now that the Attorney General's Office has approved the decision, Brown said a formal notice will be filed that prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty.

Guerrero and Sablan are being held in separate federal prisons: Guerrero in a facility near Seattle and Sablan in Dublin in Alameda County.

Though the case against the two men would be the first death penalty case tried in Fresno in recent memory, it isn't the first time they have been authorized to seek the ultimate sentence.

Federal officials sought death for Cary Stayner, who was charged with the July 1999 slaying of Yosemite park naturalist Joie Ruth Armstrong. He ended up pleading guilty in exchange for a life sentence with no chance of release.

Stayner was later convicted and sentenced to death in state court for murdering Yosemite sightseers Carole Sund, 42; her daughter Juli, 15; and their Argentine friend Silvina Pelosso, 16.

Fresno Bee reporter John Ellis can be reached at (559) 441-6320 or