Courts & Crime

Plea deal in works in California prison inmate killing

Attorney General Eric Holder, Sept. 25, 2014
Attorney General Eric Holder, Sept. 25, 2014 MCT

A proposed plea deal could spare the life of a former U.S. Penitentiary Atwater prisoner accused of killing his cellmate in 2003.

Now, the fate of the prisoner, Samuel R. Stone, is in the hands of Attorney General Eric Holder.

This week, attorneys revealed in new court filings that Stone has signed a conditional plea agreement in which he indicated a willingness to admit guilt in exchange for the government agreeing not to seek the death penalty.

“The attorney general of the United States will make this final decision,” prosecutors and defense attorneys jointly declared in a court filing dated Nov. 5.

The Justice Department on Thursday offered no clue concerning Holder’s ultimate decision, which could be guided by the still-secret recommendations of a special committee. The prosecutors who have been preparing to try Stone have also not taken a public position on the defense team’s plea agreement proposal.

But Holder’s own sympathies, as well as his political immunity by virtue of his pending resignation, could conceivably weigh in favor of accepting the proposed agreement instead of pursuing a costly and unpredictable capital case involving an inmate victim.

“I am not a proponent of the death penalty,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his 2003 confirmation hearing, “but I will enforce the law as this Congress gives it to us.”

Stone’s Colorado-based attorney, Donald R. Knight, welcomed the proposed plea agreement.

“We are hopeful that this latest development is a step in the right direction,” Knight said by e-mail Thursday. “We believe it is in everyone’s best interest to end this case as soon as possible.”

Stone’s trial is now set to start next October.

The proposed deal would end the legal fallout from events that occurred in Atwater’s crowded Special Housing Unit. Stone, who was then 24, was serving a life sentence when he was one of three convicted murderers placed into a cell designed to hold two.

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

“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.

Anita had been placed in the prison’s Special Housing Unit because of his involvement in the stabbing of another inmate several months earlier, according to court documents.

The plea deal was proposed by Stone’s defense team as a follow-up to what was termed a “lengthy, fact-specific detailed submission” to the Attorney General’s Review Committee on Capital Cases. The submission spanned 70 pages and included some 64 exhibits, including videos. It offered “information that was not available to the parties at the time death was authorized as a penalty in this case,” according to the joint Nov. 5 filing. Details have not been made public.

Stone is now incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. If Holder accepts the plea deal, the formal hearing to finalize it would be held in nearby Williamsport, Pa., rather than at the federal courthouse in Fresno, Calif., where trial preparations have been taking place.