WASHINGTON — One of two inmates accused of killing a federal correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California’s San Joaquin Valley has offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, new court records show.
If accepted by top Justice Department officials, the plea deal would spare James Ninete Leon Guerrero from a possible death sentence. It would leave intact, though, the first-degree murder case against his fellow defendant, the inmate prosecutors say wielded the shank in the videotaped 2008 attack on correctional officer Jose Rivera.
A plea agreement decision could come soon, possibly by a March 11 hearing set to test Leon Guerrero’s mental competency.
“The government hopes to finalize its decision on the defense request to resolve the case by entry of a guilty plea,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner reported in a Feb. 19 legal filing.
The final decision will be made at the Justice Department’s highest levels, as the government’s initial decision to seek the death penalty required Attorney General Eric Holder’s written authorization. Under Justice Department procedures, a special capital punishment review committee would also have to recommend withdrawing the death penalty plans.
Highlighting the new developments, U.S. District Judge Philip M. Pro stated in a Feb. 20 order that “in the event the parties consummate a plea agreement,” he will “be prepared to receive Mr. Leon Guerrero’s plea” at the March 11 hearing.
It’s not uncommon for plea agreements to divert federal death penalty cases. Since 1988, the Justice Department has authorized the federal death penalty to be sought against 492 defendants. Of these, Justice eventually withdrew 130 death penalty requests due to a plea agreement, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit monitoring organization.
“Sometimes the (death penalty) authorization is withdrawn because the defendant is willing to give something up,” Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director, said in an interview, “and then there’s a small number of cases where the government just rethinks it…Maybe they decide it’s not the right approach in this case.”
If an agreement isn’t reached by March 11, the competency hearing will proceed in Fresno’s federal courthouse with up to seven witnesses testifying about Leon Guerrero’s troubled upbringing and current mental status. One evaluator previously concluded in 2011 that Leon Guerrero exhibited “significant brain impairment, cognitive dysfunction and probable mental retardation,” among other issues. Other evaluators have disagreed, while acknowledging that his childhood was at times brutal.
“His father was physically abusive toward him, his mother and siblings,” federal Bureau of Prisons psychologist Dr. Lisa Hope wrote in one initial evaluation.
Leon Guerrero’s attorneys would use the so-called Atkins hearing in an effort to show that he is mentally handicapped and therefore, under a past Supreme Court ruling in a case called Atkins v. Virginia, ineligible for the death penalty. If the 48-year-old native of Guam is given a life sentence, it would be without possibility of parole.
Punishment, rather than guilt, has always provoked the hardest questions in the Jose Rivera murder case.
Videotape from the maximum security Atwater penitentiary shows the three-minute-long incident on June 20, 2008, which reportedly included Leon Guerrero and fellow inmate Joseph Cabrera Sablan chasing Rivera. They tackled the unarmed officer, a 22-year-old Navy veteran, and Leon Guerrero reportedly held him down while Sablan stabbed him.
Defense attorneys acknowledged in an earlier legal filing that “Sablan suddenly stabbed Officer Rivera with the approximately 9-inch long, ice pick-shaped shank while Officer Rivera was locking Mr. Leon Guerrero in his cell.” Though Sablan ended up stabbing Rivera “approximately 27 times,” the defense attorneys wrote, they say that Sablan “did not intend to kill him and has repeatedly expressed his remorse and regret for having done so.”
A government psychologist interviewed and tested Leon Guerrero over the course of several days in late January, in preparation for the mental competency hearing. According to a Feb. 19 government filing, the psychologist erroneously failed to record the interview. Officials have since been trying to obtain prison surveillance videotape of the interview.
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