Accused prison guard killer’s mental status in question at trial

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 5, 2012 

— One of two inmates accused of killing a federal prison guard in Atwater, Calif., would have his mental travails aired in public under an appellate court ruling that potentially brings a long-delayed trial closer.

Attorneys for inmate James Leon Guerrero want to keep his upcoming competency hearing private, shielded from potential jurors. But in a 2-1decision relevant for criminal proceedings throughout the West, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel effectively upheld the trial judge’s decision to open the hearing.

“Motions to seal competency proceedings are very rare,” Judge Mary H. Murguia noted in the Aug. 31 decision, adding that “the public’s interest in open criminal proceedings is well established.”

On Tuesday, Leon Guerrero’s attorneys wrote they would ask the full 9th Circuit to reconsider the decision made by the divided three-judge panel. So-called en banc hearings are relatively rare; about two dozen are currently pending in the 9th Circuit.

Leon Guerrero and Joseph Sablan potentially face the death penalty in the June 2008 killing of correctional officer Jose Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran. Still on probationary status as a guard, Rivera was unarmed when he was attacked at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater.

A prison security videotape appears to show Leon Guerrero chasing Rivera, tackling him and holding him down while Sablan repeatedly stabbed the guard with a handmade pick.

An autopsy subsequently found Rivera had 21 puncture wounds, and several slash wounds. A Justice Department investigation concluded both inmates were drunk on prison brew.

A previously convicted murderer serving a life sentence, Sablan was the unit orderly at the time of the assault. Leon Guerrero was serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

Because of the videotape and other evidence, the inmates’ key legal question may not be their guilt or innocence, but whether they will be spared the death penalty. A competency hearing could be one step in deciding Leon Guerrero’s long-term fate.

“What we’ve learned is, things just trigger his brain in a way that is somewhat unpredictable,” defense attorney Richard Novak said at a July 2011 hearing in Fresno, a court transcript shows.

Former U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger ordered a public competency hearing last year, but Leon Guerrero’s attorneys appealed to block it.

They argued, among other things, that public disclosure would hurt the traditional attorney-client privilege, as well as the defendant’s privacy rights. The appellate court was not persuaded to overturn the trial judge’s decision, noting that as many as 60,000 competency hearings are conducted annually.

“There is no authority for the proposition that a defendant’s preference that his personal history be kept personal justified denial of public access to criminal proceedings,” stated Murguia, a Democratic appointee from Kansas City, Kan.

She said that jurors can be screened and trials moved if necessary.

Another Democratic appointee, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, dissented, arguing that Leon Guerrero deserved a shot at privacy.

“Guerrero’s past, like that of so many death-eligible defendants, includes a lengthy and sordid history of varied forms of abuse and mental difficulties, a history that will be revealed in the course of his competency hearing,” Reinhardt noted, adding that “there is no remedy for the individuals whose personal tragedies and history of abuse may be revealed.”

Defense attorneys could not be reached or were unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Technically speaking, the appellate judges concluded they lacked the jurisdiction to even review at this point the trial judge’s decision on closing a competency hearing.

In theory, the argument over keeping the proceedings sealed might resume once the hearing is held. In practice, unless the full 9th Circuit reverses course, the three-judge panel’s repeated assertions that the First Amendment protects public access to pretrial competency hearings can now be influential throughout the 9th Circuit’s nine Western states.

The First Amendment access question for competency hearings has only rarely been addressed.

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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