Defense attorneys in Atwater guard killing case cite bias fears

03/29/2013 11:13 AM

03/29/2013 11:31 PM

The proliferation of Central Valley prisons has poisoned the region’s potential jury pool, according to defense attorneys for the two inmates accused of killing a U.S. Penitentiary Atwater guard in 2008.

Citing past acquittals of prison guards accused of wrongdoing, as well as the clout of the state prison guards’ union, defense attorneys in new legal filings allege that a “dysfunctional” relationship now interferes with “the jury pool and justice” throughout the valley. The assertion sets the stage for an anticipated formal request to move trials scheduled to take place next year.

“There is a significant demographic bias in the Eastern District of California that manifests itself in litigation involving correctional officers and the operation of prisons,” attorneys for Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero asserted in a filing Thursday.

As evidence, the 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.

A jury pool “with this history” must be carefully evaluated in determining whether a change of trial venue is necessary, the defense attorneys argue.

In a federal case that has the attention of top Justice Department officials, because it involves a call for the death penalty, Sablan and Leon Guerrero are accused of killing 22-year-old correctional officer Jose Rivera.

Citing prison videotape and eyewitnesses at the high-security Atwater prison, a Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Board of Inquiry said Leon Guerrero tackled Rivera and restrained him, while Sablan stabbed the Navy veteran repeatedly with an ice pick-type weapon. Both inmates appear to have been intoxicated on prison brew at the time of the June 20, 2008 killing, investigators said.

Following assorted legal maneuverings, including an appeal over public access to a mental competency hearing sought for Leon Guerrero, U.S. District Judge Phillip M. Pro in early March set a July 14, 2014 trial date for both men.

Federal cases are customarily tried in the judicial district in which the alleged crime occurred. For the Atwater prison, this is the Eastern District of California, served by major courthouses in Sacramento and Fresno. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, though, also permit trials to be changed if a judge concludes “so great a prejudice against the defendant” exists that a fair and impartial trial is impossible. In deciding, the judge looks at issues like whether the pre-trial media coverage is both pervasive and inflammatory.

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