WASHINGTON — The two inmates accused of murdering a guard at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California’s Central Valley will be tried separately, a federal judge has decided.
In a blow to prosecutors, U.S. District Judge Philip M. Pro agreed this week with defense attorneys that the case against the two inmates should be severed. Now, one murder trial is set to start in July 2014 and the other is set for April 2015, nearly seven years after the death of federal correctional officer Jose Rivera.
Attorneys for defendants Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero successfully argued that severing the cases was the best way to ensure each man receives a fair trial.
“The court balanced the interests in efficiency, fairness, accuracy and the effects of severed trials on members of Jose Rivera’s family,” Tivon Schardl, a federal public defender helping represent Sablan, said in an email Wednesday. “We believe the court’s decision will prove to be in the best interests of all concerned because it will promote the fair, accurate and efficient resolution of the cases.”
Schardl, based in Sacramento, added that “we continue to extend our sympathies and respect to the Rivera family.”
Prosecutors, including one from the Justice Department’s D.C.-based Capital Case Unit, had urged the judge to try both defendants together for the sake of both efficiency and compassion.
“A joint trial avoids both the inconvenience, and trauma, of asking witnesses to testify numerous times to the same set of facts,” prosecutors declared in one recent legal filing. “Many of the witnesses in this case were colleagues and loved ones of Officer Rivera’s who suffered great mental and emotional harm as a result of this loss.”
Sablan and Leon Guerrero are charged with first-degree murder and potentially face the death penalty for the June 20, 2008 attack that was recorded by prison video cameras. A subsequent Bureau of Prisons’ investigation concluded the inmates were drunk on widely available prison brew at the time of the attack.
“Both defendants assaulted Officer Rivera,” prosecutors summed up in a recent filing. “Both pursued Officer Rivera as he fled. Both leapt onto their victim; Sablan wielded the shank while Guerrero held their victim down. Both murdered Officer Rivera.”
Trying both men together, prosecutors added, would aid in the “conservation of time, money and scarce judicial resources.” Defense attorneys countered that a joint trial would make it harder for the jury to distinguish one man’s culpability from another. Assessing this potential culpability gap may prove particularly tricky because Leon Guerrero’s attorneys plan to argue he is mentally impaired.
Further complicating Pro’s decision-making, judges in prior cases reached different conclusions about severing trials even though there’s a general preference for unified actions in federal criminal proceedings.
Arizona resident Frederick Parker, for instance, was jointly tried along with a Mexican Mafia member on charges of firebombing a Tucson-area home in the course of a cocaine-dealing plot. Parker subsequently appealed his 2012 conviction, arguing that the trial judge should have severed the cases to avoid prejudicing the jury.
In May 2013, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Parker’s claim, reasoning that the most important question is whether proper judicial instructions ensure that “the jury can compartmentalize the evidence against each defendant.”
Parker is now in a medium-security federal prison in Southern California, and is scheduled for release in 2017.
On the other hand, Oklahoma City bombing conspirators Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols received separate trials after the judge ruled in 1996 that “there will be substantial and significant differences in the tactical approaches taken by their respective counsel.” Both men were convicted; McVeigh was later executed, while Nichols is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Sablan is now being held at the same federal prison in Terra Haute, Ind., where McVeigh was executed in 2001.
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