No death penalty for inmate accused of fatally stabbing Atwater prison guard Jose Rivera

MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- A Merced family is outraged after learning the man charged with killing their loved one will avoid the death penalty if convicted.

Earlier this week, his mother, Terry Rivera, found out that the U.S. District Attorney's Office would not pursue the death penalty against previously convicted killer Joseph Cabrera Sablan. He's accused of stabbing Atwater prison guard Jose Rivera to death in 2008. It's a plea deal that Rivera's family was never willing to accept. Terry Rivera says her country has failed her again.

"We just want safety for the correctional officers and Jose didn't have safety," she said. "I think if he would have had the tools -- the proper tools -- I think he would be here today with us and my concern was justice, so it won't happen to other families (what) we've been through."

Friday, U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner issued a statement, saying in part that the decision to enter the plea agreement "...focused on the likelihood of obtaining a death sentence that would be affirmed on appeal and implemented."

"The U.S. Attorney is saying we're not even sure if we get a conviction, the Court of Appeals will affirm the conviction for the death penalty," said ABC30 legal analyst Tony Capozzi.

Capozzi says this is a difficult case, made only more difficult by the time that has passed since the murder. He adds that it takes a long time to prosecute when the federal government seeks the death penalty.

"All in all, it may have been the right decision for the government to do this, but when it comes to the victims, they don't see it that way. They don't see justice here," Capozzi said.

They want justice not just for Rivera, but for all correctional officers in California, according to Michael Meserve, with the Council of Prison Locals. Although there have been improvements made for guards since Rivera's death, like pepper spray and stab-resistant vests, he says federal prisons need more funding and more staffing.

"With an ever-increasing prison population, it is almost impossible for us to stay fully staffed or staffed enough to maintain and control safe prisons," Meserve said.

Meserve says the decision sends the wrong message to federal prison inmates: That they can kill on the inside, and still live to see another day.

Last year, James Guerrero, the man who held down Jose Rivera while he was being stabbed, also took a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. Both men will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
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