Prison brew could play pivotal role in California murder case

McClatchy NewspapersMay 17, 2013 

— One of the two inmates accused of killing an Atwater, Calif., prison guard was so drunk on a potent brew dubbed “White Lightning” that he couldn’t understand an FBI agent’s Miranda warnings afterward, defense attorneys claim in revealing new documents filed in federal court.

The inmate, James Ninete Leon Guerrero, had consumed nearly 24 ounces of the approximately 180-proof booze from a plastic Pepsi bottle, according to the latest filings. An interrogation video showed that he remained severely intoxicated after the alleged attack and during the time an agent questioned him, attorneys say.

“The video begins with Mr. Leon Guerrero laying down in the cell in which he was interviewed, and talking with slurred speech,” one legal document filed Wednesday recounts. “As the interview progresses, Mr. Leon Guerrero has great difficulty answering any…questions, cannot stay on topic and intermittently cries.”

The alleged intoxication of Leon Guerrero and his co-defendant, Jose Cabrera Sablan, matters for several reasons, as defense attorneys and prosecutors prepare for a trial scheduled to start next year. Both men are accused of killing U.S. Penitentiary Atwater corrections officer Jose Rivera in June 2008.

In part, defense attorneys want to challenge the extent to which Leon Guerrero made a “knowing and intelligent” decision to waive his Miranda rights not to speak. The Wednesday legal filing, one of a flurry in recent days, seeks to block prosecutors from using statements made by Leon Guerrero during an interview that lasted about 30 minutes following Rivera’s death.

“Can you tell in a little more detail what it was that this officer did today that made you angry?” an FBI agent asked Leon Guerrero at one point, according to a new defense filing.

A verbal exchange may have preceded the attack, as the FBI agent asked at various times “what was it that the officer said” and “after he said it and you started the attack, what happened next?”

Questioned while he was both handcuffed and shackled, Leon Guerrero asked the FBI special agent whether Rivera had survived the assault and also asked for an attorney, the videotape shows. Leon Guerrero’s answers are not included in the defense legal filings.

The agent did not mention, as part of the Miranda warning, that Leon Guerrero had a right to a court-appointed attorney if he could not afford one, defense attorneys say.

Because officials didn’t test Leon Guerrero’s blood alcohol content, his attorneys say, he’s been placed at a disadvantage in trying to show he was too intoxicated to think clearly. A 1994 appellate case, though not spelling out exactly when someone is too intoxicated to make a knowing and intelligent decision, involved a suspect with a blood-alcohol level below .25.

More broadly, defense attorneys have been raising pointed questions about the seemingly ill-disciplined Atwater environment at the time of Rivera’s death. A 2009 Board of Inquiry report previously found that “intoxicants were extremely easy for inmates to make and obtain,” and additional details are now coming to light.

A Kansas City private investigator working for the defense, Mark D. Reeder, declared in new court filings that an Atwater inmate made the illicit alcohol using two pounds of dates and two cups of dry rice. The inmate further explained to Reeder that he tested the quality by lighting a small amount to ensure that it would burn for at least 60 seconds.

“This informant also stated that he used to drink the alcohol he produced, but stopped doing so after several experiences during which he could not remember what he had done after splitting a bottle with a friend,” Reeder stated.

A federal judge denied defense requests to pay for a research distillery to replicate the Atwater prison brew so it could be tested, according to recently unsealed documents.

In separate legal filings, defense attorneys ask the government for myriad documents, including inmate alcohol testing reports, as well as job evaluations for the former Atwater warden and reports of investigations into alleged misconduct by Atwater staff. Some seemingly banal defense document requests have a hidden poignancy, like the request for a document about a prison dishwasher repair.

The shank used to kill Rivera was apparently fashioned from a broken-off piece from the Atwater dishwasher, the Board of Inquiry noted.

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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