Courts & Crime

Talks underway to resolve 10-year-old California prison death

In life-or-death trials, as in real estate, a lot comes down to location, location, location.

As federal prosecutors and defense attorneys prepare for the long-awaited trial of a former U.S. Penitentiary Atwater inmate, they’re disputing over whether it should be held in Fresno or Sacramento.

The maneuvering over venue precedes the trial against Samuel Richard Stone, charged in the 2003 killing of fellow Atwater inmate Michael Anita. But along with their tussles, defense attorneys and prosecutors could also be nearing common ground on a potential plea deal.

“The parties believe that if the government withdraws death as a penalty option the case could resolve without need for (a scheduled) evidentiary hearing,” prosecutors and defense attorneys wrote in a rare joint court filing dated July 10.

A revised death penalty decision, and potential plea agreement, could arrive as early as September, according to court documents.

“A lot of cases result in plea bargains,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, said in an interview Friday. “Certainly, that can happen.”

Defense attorneys could not be reached to comment publicly Friday.

Stone, who was then 24 years old, was already serving a life sentence in 2003 when Atwater authorities placed him in Cell 121 of the prison’s Secure Housing Unit. The cell was designed to hold two. Instead, Stone was one of three convicted murderers sharing the space.

Early on the morning of July 30, 2003, according to court documents, correctional officers responded to an alarm and found Anita on the floor, braided strips of a bed sheet wrapped around his neck. He had been stabbed in the chest. The improvised weapons still embedded in him included a pen and a pencil.

“Prison staff and the FBI recount that Mr. Stone immediately said that he had killed Mr. Anita,” defense attorneys noted in an April 2013 legal filing.

Stone is Native American, as was Anita and the third inmate present in the overcrowded cell, and factional prison politics were at the root of the killing, defense attorneys have asserted. Defense attorneys have collected considerable information on the Warrior Society, a Native American prison gang, as well as on incidents of Native American inmate violence.

Though it has largely flown under the radar, the case against Stone has a national cast. Attorney General Eric Holder, advised by a national Justice Department committee, initially authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty. One of the two trial prosecutors, former Army Judge Advocate General Corps officer Richard Burns, works out of Washington, D.C.

Stone’s lead defense attorney, Donald R. Knight, is based in Littleton, Colo. Stone is currently incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary Victorville in the Southern California desert.

In Washington, the Review Committee on Capital Cases has been quietly considering a lengthy defense request to reconsider the death penalty. The 70-page defense submission includes some 64 exhibits, including videos, and according to a legal filing is “comprised of information that was not available to the parties at the time death was authorized as a penalty in this case.”

Trial-level prosecutors have reviewed the material and made their own recommendations. The prosecutors’ recommendations remain secret, as do the full review committee’s deliberations, but public legal filings suggest some cooperation among prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“The parties have been constantly communicating and acting in good faith with respect to this process,” the July 10 joint filing noted. “The parties believe that this effort is important and that it is possible that it will lead to a resolution of the death penalty portion of this case, if not the entire case.”

Earlier this year, former Atwater inmate, James Ninete Leon Guerrero, pled guilty to killing correctional officer Jose Rivera in 2008, in exchange for a life sentence. Another inmate charged in Rivera’s murder, Joseph Sablan, still faces the potential death penalty if convicted.

If Stone’s trial proceeds, prosecutors declared Aug. 20 that they want the trial held in Fresno, noting that Burns’ fellow prosecutor Michael Frye, as well as a key FBI special agent work there. Defense attorneys want the trial held in Sacramento, where defense attorney Tivon Schardl and other defense staff work.