- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

ATWATER, Calif. (AP) - An inmate at a federal prison in central California pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday in the 2008 killing of a correctional officer, removing the possibility of a death sentence.

James Ninete Leon Guerrero, 48, of Guam, entered a plea of second-degree murder before U.S. District Judge Philip Pro in a negotiated agreement that will put Guerrero in prison for the rest of his life.

Defense attorney Salvatore Sciandra said his client has a mild intellectual disability and low IQ, which would have made Leon Guerrero ineligible for a death sentence, if that were the outcome of his trial. Sciandra said federal prosecutors agreed, allowing for the plea deal to be reached.

“Both sides were hoping to avoid what would have been a huge expense litigating that issue,” said Sciandra, adding that Leon Guerrero was not the lead perpetrator of the slaying carried out in a federal prison and captured by surveillance cameras.

Leon Guerrero was accused of holding Officer Jose Rivera down at the U.S. penitentiary in Atwater as another inmate, Jose Cabrera Sablan, stabbed him more than 20 times with an 8-inch shank. The 22-year-old Rivera - a U.S. Navy veteran - was doing a daily headcount when he was attacked.

Sablan is scheduled to go to trial in April 2015 and faces a potential death sentence. Attorney Donald R. Knight, who represents Sablan, said his client has entered a plea of not guilty. Knight declined to comment on the case.

Terry Rivera, the slain officer’s mother, told the Fresno Bee that she thought Leon Guerrero should have received a death sentence. Leon Guerrero was already serving a life term at the time in connection with an armed bank robbery in Guam. Under the plea agreement, he will receive another life term.

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento, said prosecutors considered Leon Guerrero’s mental capacity and that he played a secondary role in the killing. Reaching the early resolution was in everybody’s best interest, Horwood said.

Leon Guerrero is scheduled to be formally sentenced May 30.

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