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California: Eastern District Jury Pool Alleged to be Biased Against Prisoners

Defense attorneys representing two prisoners accused of murdering a federal prison guard have argued that the jury pool in the region – the Central Valley of California – is biased against prisoners due to the numerous correctional facilities that dot the landscape.

The Fresno Division of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California is home to 20 state and federal facilities plus three large county jails, the attorneys noted. The District's Sacramento Division includes 11 state and federal prisons as well as the headquarters of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association – the union that represents state prison guards.

"All this means the Eastern District has among the largest, if not the largest, concentration [of] prisons, jails, detention centers, and corrections administration offices in the nation," the defense attorneys wrote in a March 28, 2013 court filing.

"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," said the attorneys for federal prisoners Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero. Charged with capital murder, Sablan and Leon Guerrero are accused of killing prison guard Jose Rivera, 22, at USP Atwater in June 2008. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.10; Jan. 2009, p.50].

As evidence of jury pool bias, the defense attorneys cited the 2010 acquittal of former Atwater Lt. Eric A. McEachern, who was charged with assaulting a prisoner with a flashlight, and a 2003 lawsuit involving several guards who were found not liable for arranging the rape of a prisoner at the California State Prison at Corcoran. [See: PLN, March 2000, p.12]. A jury pool "with this history" must be taken into consideration when ruling on a request for a change of venue, the attorneys argued.

The case against the defendants is already highly charged, with extensive local media coverage. Citing video footage and eyewitness accounts at USP Atwater, government officials claim Leon Guerrero tackled Rivera and held him while Sablan repeatedly stabbed the guard with a shank. Both prisoners were allegedly drunk on pruno at the time.

Seeking a change of venue by alleging jury bias against prisoners is an unusual tactic. The defense attorneys, Richard Novak and Salvatore Sciandra for Leon Guerrero, and federal defender Tivon Schardl for Sablan, have engaged an expert to bolster their argument. Media coverage is one area of alleged bias, while another "is the existence of a significant bias in the community that arises out of the Eastern District's saturation by local, state and federal correctional institutions and industries serving those institutions, their employees and the families of the employees," they argued.

In addition to jury pool bias, the defense attorneys intend to argue "that the management of USP Atwater knowingly tolerated the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol by inmates; that possession of weapons by inmates was known by [Bureau of Prisons] management to be an ongoing and pervasive problem at the institution; that protocols for the housing of inmates were not followed at USP Atwater ... and that the grand jury was presented with materially false testimony concerning the alleged 'motive' behind the assault on Officer Rivera and concerning the evidence of premeditation."

The Central Valley region of California is a Republican stronghold, noted for its conservative, tough-on-crime legislative representatives. Whether prisoners who are facing the death penalty for killing a prison guard can get a fair trial in the U.S. District Court's Eastern District remains to be seen.

Sablan and Leon Guerrero are scheduled to go to trial in July 2014.

Source: Sacramento Bee

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