Men in Atwater prison death seek separate trials

mdoyle@mcclatchydc.comJune 18, 2013 

    alternate textMichael Doyle
    Title: National correspondent
    Bio: Michael joined the McClatchy Washington Bureau in 1988 and writes stories from Washington for The Bee. He's a graduate of Oberlin College, and earned a master of studies in law from Yale Law School, where he was a Knight Journalism Fellow. He also earned a masters in government from The Johns Hopkins University.
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    On Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

— The two federal prison inmates accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater five years ago this week are seeking to separate their trials.

Following an extensive defense investigation that has included the review of hundreds of thousands of Bureau of Prisons records, attorneys for inmates Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero say separate trials are necessary to ensure each gets a fair shake.

"Each defendant may present evidence that is antagonistic to the other and, because prosecutors do not possess the evidence, could turn one defendant's counsel into a second prosecutor against the other," defense attorneys for the inmates noted in a recent court filing.

Citing research, the defense attorneys further argue that "this case presents an especially high risk of prejudice" because jurors may lump the defendants together since both are long-time felons from the Northern Mariana Islands.

A May 29 court filing indicated that Fresno-based federal prosecutors oppose severing the case into two trials, although they have not filed papers explaining their reasons. Efficiency is often cited as a reason to hold one trial instead of two. A judge will make the final decision.

Sablan and Leon Guerrero are facing charges of first-degree murder and could face the death penalty in the June 20, 2008, killing of correctional officer Jose Rivera.

Prison videotape, acknowledged by defense attorneys, recorded the late afternoon episode, in which Sablan struck Rivera and then both inmates chased the 22-year-old Navy veteran until they tackled him.

"Mr. Sablan jumps on top of him," defense attorneys recounted, describing the videotape, in the June 14 court filing. "For another minute and a half, they wrestle on the floor. Mr. Sablan is seen swinging a weapon."

There is an important question about whether there was any premeditation, and Leon Guerrero's attorneys will "present evidence that he is mentally retarded," defense consultant Edward Bronson noted.

Sablan's attorneys have declared in another recent court filing that Leon Guerrero was "acting with paranoid and delusional beliefs" that included an errant conviction that Rivera and other guards were part of a larger conspiracy.

Sablan is represented by a team of attorneys that includes the Sacramento-based federal defender's office. Leon Guerrero is represented by a team that includes Fresno-based attorney Salvatore Sciandra and Pasadena-based Richard G. Novak Jr.

The prosecutors, Justice Department trial attorney Bonnie Hannan and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawrence W. Rice Jr., said in their latest filing that defense attorneys are engaged in a "fishing expedition" that's costly and unnecessary because of the "staggering volume of materials already produced."

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