For the past few years I have been meeting with Leon Guerrero's defense team to discuss with them aspects of Chamorro history that may be relevant to the case. Through these meetings I learned about mitigation, and the exhaustive amount of research that should take place prior to trying someone in a capital case. I have spoken to them about the impact of World War II on Chamorros and the trauma that gets carried into postwar generations in both visible and invisible ways. I spoke to them about the displacement after the war and how this created a host of new stressors on Chamorro families and some families didn't have the support networks to deal with this. Earlier this year I learned they had chosen me to help them make the argument that because of his background, the particularities of his experience he should not be put to death. I spent the past month preparing a report on this as an expert, but receive news this week that I wouldn't be needed. As someone who has never supported the death penalty, I was happy to be a part of this case even if in small ways.
Read the article below to learn more details about Leon Guerrero's background.
Guam killer cuts deal: Attorney: Mental illness went untreated
Pacific Daily News
March 11, 2014
A bank robber from Guam will avoid the death penalty for admitting to his role in the murder of a California prison guard.
According to federal court documents, the attorney for James Ninete Leon Guerrero and federal prosecutors have reached a plea deal sparing Leon Guerrero the death penalty.
He will instead serve life in prison, according to attorney Richard Novak, who is on Leon Guerrero's defense team.
Novak said Leon Guerrero has suffered from bipolar disorder and an intellectual disability that went untreated for decades, both of which contributed to his long list of run-ins with the law.
Leon Guerrero, who was imprisoned in California for a Guam bank robbery, and another Guam felon, Jose Cabrera Sablan, were indicted in August 2008 on allegations that they killed Jose V. Rivera, a corrections officer at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif.
The incident began the day after Leon Guerrero arrived as a new inmate at the penitentiary.
On June 20, 2008, Rivera was securing inmates in their cells and had just closed Leon Guerrero's door when Sablan allegedly jumped at the officer.
Sablan, who was suspected to be intoxicated, "appeared to pull something from his pocket, and in a stabbing motion struck Officer Rivera in the torso," stated a report from the Bureau of Prisons.
Alcohol, said the report, was "easily obtained by the inmate population."
Leon Guerrero, also alleged to have been drunk, rushed out of the cell.
Novak said the alcohol exacerbated Leon Guerrero's already damaged mental condition.
"He knew there was some conflict and did what his damaged, alcohol-affected brain told him to do," Novak said.
After chasing Rivera down a stairwell, Leon Guerrero tackled Rivera and held him down.
The report said Sablan "got on top of Officer Rivera and began to strike (him) with the ice-pick-type weapon."
Rivera was pronounced dead at a hospital later that afternoon.
A subsequent autopsy found 28 injuries, seven of which were to Rivera's head and neck. Two stab wounds punctured the officer's heart.
Novak said Leon Guerrero was never aware Sablan had a weapon and had no history of interaction with the officer.
At the time, Leon Guerrero was serving a life sentence for conspiring to rob the Bank of Guam in 1997, according to Pacific Daily News files.
Sablan was serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend in 1990.
In February 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to federal prosecutors in California, telling them they are "authorized and directed to seek the death penalty" against the two inmates for the murder case.
Up until the agreement was reached, Novak said, he planned to argue that putting Leon Guerrero to death would violate a prohibition against executing those with intellectual disabilities.
Novak said Leon Guerrero's disabilities were clear from the moment the defense team met him.
"When we first met James in 2008, it was clear that he had a number of neuropsychological conditions that needed to be evaluated," he said.
After looking deeper into Leon Guerrero's mental health, Novak said that it was "very clear that for his entire life he has had bipolar disorder."
Coupled with his intellectual disability, Novak said, the disorder severely impaired Leon Guerrero, and the defense team moved to spare the man from the death penalty.
As part of that motion, the defense included several arguments that Leon Guerrero never received the resources he needed to accommodate his disabilities.
One of those declarations was from May Camacho, the former associate superintendent of special education for the Guam Department of Education.
Camacho said that in the 1970s, when Leon Guerrero would have been in elementary school, the assessment for students with disabilities and special needs typically took one to two months.
That often deterred teachers from making recommendations, she said.
"As a result of the overall deficiencies ... many who had suspected disabilities may have been overlooked," she wrote.
Based on a review of Leon Guerrero's school records, Camacho said she "definitely would have referred (him) for a special education evaluation."
Aside from a remedial program, though, Leon Guerrero never received treatment or medication, Novak said -- a trend that followed him through school, the Department of Youth Affairs and all the way up to the Atwater incident.
"The school system missed it, DYA missed it, the Department of Corrections missed it and the prison system missed it," said Novak.
Finally, Leon Guerrero's defense team was able to get him on medication, which Novak said "completely changed him."
"Once put on medication, he literally became a different man the moment the medication took effect," said Novak. "He really can function at a healthy level."
He added that Leon Guerrero has been on medication every day for the past two years without incident.
Although some might be concerned that a person already serving a life sentence won't be affected by another life sentence, Novak said that shouldn't be a concern.
"His life within the Bureau of Prisons is going to change dramatically," he said.
He said Leon Guerrero has been moved from the general population to an isolation unit where he's been for the past six years and will continue to be for "a very long time."
Novak said that while the island's resources are limited when it comes to recognizing and caring for the mentally ill, Guam's schools need to be looking at its students and parents need to be educated about what to look for and what's available.
"It's about education and it's about resources," he said.
Leon Guerrero is scheduled to plead guilty on Tuesday, California time. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for this summer, where Rivera's family, Leon Guerrero and Leon Guerrero's family will have the opportunity to speak.
TIMELINEJames Leon Guerrero's run-ins with the law go all the way back to 1981, when he was first arrested for burglary and sentenced to one year of probation. His attorney yesterday said he lived for decades with an intellectual disability and bipolar disorder that went untreated.
• April 1981 - At age 15, Leon Guerrero was arrested for burglary and sentenced to a year of probation. Less than three months later, he was arrested on another burglary charge and held for another three months. He was put on probation until he turned 18.
• January 1984 - At the age of 18, Leon Guerrero was fined for fighting and making threats to a police officer.
• December 1984 - Leon Guerrero, 20, started a disturbance at a store, which escalated to him jumping onto a police officer's back and locking his arm around the officer's neck. He was sentenced to a year in prison.
• February 1987 - Leon Guerrero and another man entered a finance company where they robbed a clerk of $1,200. The pair fled in a stolen truck. During the chase, Leon Guerrero fired shots at the police pursuing them. The man, 21 at the time, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, robbery and theft of a motor vehicle. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
• May 1992 - While at the Guam Department of Corrections, three inmates killed a corrections officer. Although he initially pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, Leon Guerrero successfully appealed that conviction. He was later charged in federal with a "civil rights violation of the officer," according to court documents and sentenced to 10 years in prison, with credit for time served.
• April 1997 - Leon Guerrero robbed the Bank of Guam and made off with about $225,000. He was ultimately convicted of conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery.
• June 2008 - Shortly after arriving at a federal penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., Leon Guerrero held down a corrections officer while another inmate repeatedly stabbed the man. The officer later died of his wounds.
Sources: Federal court documents