Courts & Crime

Judge cites highway named for victim in order moving murder trial

The upcoming trial of an inmate charged with killing a federal correctional officer at the U.S. penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., has now been moved to Southern California, in part because of a highway’s name.

Over the objections of prosecutors, a judge on Monday agreed to move the long-awaited trial of inmate Joseph Cabrera Sablan from Fresno’s federal courthouse to the Los Angeles area. The soon-to-retire U.S. District Judge Philip M. Pro cited a poll, the local population and pre-trial publicity in granting the defense request for a change of venue.

“The court also finds it reasonable to presume that some potential jurors will be influenced by the fact that a major highway running through the middle of the Fresno division has been named the ‘Correctional Officer Jose V. Rivera Memorial Highway’ in honor of the victim in this case,” Pro noted.

The California Legislature in 2010 passed a resolution naming a roughly five-mile stretch of heavily trafficked State Route 99 through Atwater after Rivera. The resolution was authored by Republican Jeff Denham, who was then in the state Senate and now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A Navy veteran, Rivera, 22, died of stab wounds on June 20, 2008, after being assaulted in the maximum security Atwater prison.

Inmate James Ninete Leon Guerrero pleaded guilty in March to participating in the attack, which was captured on videotape and seen by witnesses. The guilty plea spared Leon Guerrero the possibility of a death sentence.

Prosecutors say Sablan wielded the prison-made shank while Leon Guerrero held Rivera down during the attack, which lasted about three minutes. Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Sablan, whose trial is scheduled to start in April.

Defense attorney Don Knight on Tuesday called the change of venue a “just conclusion of a difficult issue.”

“We hope that this decision will help lead to a resolution of this case that is satisfactory to everyone,” Knight said.

As part of their bid for a change of venue, Sablan’s defense attorneys commissioned a survey of 386 potential jurors in the Eastern District of California, the judicial district that includes California’s Central Valley.

“The survey,” Pro noted, “shows the potential jury pool within the Fresno division strongly identifies with, and is protective of, correctional officers, and concomitantly views inmate litigants as a group without rights or legitimate interests.”

In their legal filings, defense attorneys cited the 2010 acquittal of former Atwater lieutenant Eric A. McEachern on charges of beating an inmate with a flashlight, as well as a 2003 case in which several guards were not found liable for setting up the rape of an inmate at the California State Prison at Corcoran.

Defense attorneys further noted in legal filings that the Fresno Division of the Eastern District is home to 20 state and federal correctional facilities and three large county jails, while the Sacramento Division includes 11 state and federal correctional facilities,

The “unusually high concentration of correctional facilities” within the Central Valley, Pro reasoned, could contribute to a jury pool potentially “unable to give fair and impartial consideration to (Sablan’s) defense, particularly to the extent his defense relies on his claim that USP Atwater was mismanaged.”

Violence, weapons and prison-made alcohol reportedly proliferated at the Atwater prison at the time of Rivera’s murder. Prison management has since improved, according to multiple accounts.

Pro added that the “presumptive cost, inconvenience and delay” in setting up procedures to weed out biased jurors in the Central Valley would be particularly onerous.

At the same time, Pro acknowledged that the change of venue is a burden to members of Rivera’s family, who live in the Central Valley and who will now face a round-trip journey of about 560 miles to and from the Los Angeles courthouse where the trial will be held.

“It should be considered that the victim’s family would suffer considerable travel time, inconvenience, and expense to attend the trial, if the trial were moved,” prosecutors argued in a brief filed last month.

Prosecutors had further asserted that the media’s reporting on the case “falls far short of the inflammatory coverage that gives rise to presumed prejudice.”