Prison guard murder defendant intellectually disabled, defense experts say

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 6, 2013 

— Respect means everything to one of the men accused of helping kill a federal correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater, in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

James Ninete Leon Guerrero wrote one friend he “will never back down to no man.” To make his point, newly available documents show, Leon Guerrero has fought other inmates, gone on multiple hunger strikes and threatened prison staff. At various times, he’s improvised every weapon in an inmate’s arsenal, from throwing food trays to smearing feces. At other times, officers say he can be cool, calm and collected.

“I give respect. I want it back,” Leon Guerrero once wrote a friend. “That’s my line.”

The intimate, often painful details about Leon Guerrero’s life and mind are included in a lengthy evaluation placed into the public record Wednesday. The 71-page evaluation, designated as “sensitive but unclassified,” is one part of a legal fight that could help determine whether Leon Guerrero lives or dies.

A 48-year-old native of Guam, Leon Guerrero is charged with first-degree murder in the June 20, 2008, slaying of correctional officer Jose Rivera. Leon Guerrero has pled not guilty, as has fellow defendant Joseph Cabrera Sablan, but videotape and other evidence make the verdict less a mystery than the potential sentence.

Rivera was 22 at the time of his death, a Navy veteran who had grown up in the San Joaquin Valley.

Leon Guerrero was newly arrived at the maximum security Atwater prison and was drinking prison brew on June 20 with Sablan, investigators subsequently concluded. Investigators say Sablan suddenly stabbed Officer Rivera with an approximately 9-inch long shank outside a cell. Rivera ran, and the two inmates tackled him. Leon Guerrero held down Rivera while Sablan stabbed him repeatedly, investigators say.

Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for both Leon Guerrero and Sablan. Leon Guerrero’s attorneys say his intellectual disability must rule out capital punishment, under a 2002 Supreme Court ruling in which justices said executing the “mentally retarded” violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Mr. Leon Guerrero showed a consistent and remarkable set of deficits in the area of learning and memory functioning,” Dr. Deborah Miora, a court-appointed neuropsychologist, noted in a report, calling Leon Guerrero’s mental problems “ubiquitous.”

Another psychologist cited by the defense, Dr. Daniel Reschly, added that Leon Guerrero had “significant limitations in general intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior prior to age 18.”

Nearly 40 percent of capital case defendants who had filed similar intellectual disability claims through 2009 were successful in their efforts, according to a study by Cornell University Law School professors John H. Blume, Sheri Lynn Johnson and Christopher Seeds. The Cornell professors concluded that the 2002 ruling banning the execution of the intellectually disabled “has not opened floodgates of non-meritorious litigation.”

Defense attorneys this week declined to comment, pointing instead to the positions spelled out in court documents.

The defense claims, in turn, have prompted prosecutors to propose that other experts examine Leon Guerrero. The ensuing legal wrangle over the examinations has made public more information about Leon Guerrero’s life, in which he has been both victim and predator.

“His father was physically abusive toward him, his mother and siblings,” federal Bureau of Prisons psychologist Dr. Lisa Hope wrote in the 71-page evaluation, further quoting Leon Guerrero as recalling “’He broke my mom’s nose, I seen him.’”

Raised with his five siblings in what was described as a “one-room, wood and tin shack,” Leon Guerrero reported drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana starting when he was about 12. He said he was “paddled a lot” in school, where he got bad grades, fought regularly and left before the end of 10th grade.

Leon Guerrero scores low on IQ tests. Precisely how low is a matter of dispute, though the range appears to be between the mid-60s and the mid-70s. He was “slow to master using the bathroom, dressing himself and tying his shoelaces,” one psychologist cited by the defense noted. At the same time, Hope says, Leon Guerrero can be verbal and has a memory some officers describe as “impeccable.”

Going back to his first arrest for burglary, when he was 15 and Jose Rivera was not yet born, Leon Guerrero has been incarcerated for more than half of his life. While in prison, he has been frequently disciplined. Since the 2008 killing at Atwater, he has also been placed on suicide watch several times.

“When asked if he could go back and change things where he would start, he responded that he never really had the opportunity to ‘know what life’s like,’” Hope stated.

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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