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Plea deal in Atwater prison murder spares defendant death penalty
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One defendant standing trial for the killing of a correctional officer at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater has changed his plea to guilty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday.

James Ninete Leon Guerrero, 48, of Guam, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Phillip Pro to one count of murder by a federal prisoner serving a life sentence. According to court documents, Guerrero aided and abetted co-defendant Jose Cabrera Sablan in the stabbing death of Officer Jose Rivera.

Rivera, 22, was on duty at the prison on June 20,2008. Around 3 p.m. he was performing the daily count when he was attacked by Guerrero and allegedly by  co-defendant Jose Cabrera Sablan. An investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations concluded Sablan attacked Rivera with an eight-inch homemade shank, resembling an ice pick. Rivera tried to flee, but was caught by Guerrero, who held him down while Sablan stabbed him more than 20 times. The Merced County Coroner’s Office said Rivera suffered multiple puncture wounds to the upper torso and back. One of the puncture wounds pierced his heart causing the fatality.

Sablan and Guerrero were indicted for murder on Aug. 14, 2008. As a result of Guerrero’s plea, he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Both men were already serving life sentences for other crimes.

Guerrero’s plea deal saves him from a possible death sentence, though his defense team had been planning to argue that his diminished intellect should have spared him from death row.

Rivera, a U.S. Navy veteran who served two tours in Iraq, had been working at the federal prison for about 10 months. His death prompted a public outcry from the Council of Prison Locals, which represents federal correctional officers, about the increased dangers guards were facing because of budget cuts. At the time of his death, Rivera was the lone guard watching over 100 inmates and was not equipped with a stab proof vest or a weapon.

Sablan’s case is set for trial on April 6, 2015.