Holder allows death penalty in prison guard killing

Newly appointed Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty against two inmates at Atwater's high-security federal penitentiary suspected of stabbing and killing a correctional officer last June.

It would be the first federal death-penalty case tried in Fresno in recent memory, according to some local attorneys and judicial officials.

Holder, who won U.S. Senate confirmation in early February, sent a two-paragraph letter to acting U.S. Attorney Larry Brown that he was "authorized and directed" to seek the death penalty against Jose Cabrera Sablan and James Leon Guerrero.

The two inmates, who are both from Guam, are charged with first-degree murder in the death of Chowchilla resident Jose Rivera, a U.S. Navy veteran who served four years in the military, including two tours in Iraq.

Rivera, 22, died June 20 when Sablan and Guerrero allegedly stabbed him through the heart with a prison-made shank. Both inmates were already serving life sentences for earlier crimes.

Prosecutors said an FBI investigation found that Sablan stabbed Rivera, using an 8-inch, ice pick-type weapon. Rivera, who had worked at Atwater less than a year, attempted to escape but was chased down by Guerrero, who held him while Sablan repeatedly stabbed him, prosecutors said.

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