Prison inmate's death penalty trial begins soon

January 16, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

After a five-month effort to select a jury, a murder trial in which the county District Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty against a Calipatria State Prison inmate could be nearing a start date.

Inmate Louis Gomez, 24, is accused of murdering inmate Abe Mendibles on April 13, 1998, while the two were in a prison classroom.

According to the DA's Office, Gomez — then 20 — stabbed Mendibles, who was in his 40s, 14 times. Gomez has remained in administrative segregation at the prison since then.

His attorneys, John Breeze and Chris Plourd, both based in El Centro, have argued their client stabbed Mendibles in self-defense because Mendibles made threats against Gomez's life.


While jury selection is nearing an end, the defense team recently asked that the case be continued. Superior Court Judge James Harmon approved a month delay, which means the trial is set to start Feb. 19.

A final determination on that date could come next week.

The case has been complicated, partly because it is a capital punishment case in which Gomez would be tried on the murder charge with the addition of two issues of special circumstances. Those two issues have not been made public.

If a jury were to find Gomez guilty of first-degree murder with the addition of at least one of the special circumstances, he could face life in prison without chance of parole or the death penalty.

The sticking point in the jury selection has been finding Imperial Valley residents who can be "death-qualified" to serve as jurors on the case. They must be "middle of the road" in their stance on the death penalty, court officials have said.

Deputy District Attorney Karla Davis said initially it was difficult finding jurors because while 1,000 were summoned, many did not respond.

As a result, a second jury summons was mailed for the case. For that round Harmon included a letter stating those who did not respond to the summons could be found in contempt of court.

Once prospective jurors were found, many had to be released because they did not meet eligibility requirements such as being U.S. citizens and having adequate English skills.

The second wave of the selection process dealt with the "hardship qualifying" possible jurors. If they made it through that process, they then had to meet the "death qualification."

There are 83 prospective jurors who could be selected for the case.

On Tuesday, Gomez was in the County Courthouse in El Centro as his attorneys discussed issues of discovery with the prosecution. Three state prison correctional officers manned the courtrooms.

Because of the nature of the case, few details have been released on Gomez's history. He is serving time for a crime that has not been disclosed.

Information was released on the victim of the stabbing. Mendibles was serving 25 years to life under the three strikes law.

Breeze and Plourd have argued their client was acting in self-defense. Breeze said Tuesday his client felt threatened by Mendibles, who was much larger and a more experienced inmate.

Davis said it's the DA's contention that Gomez was not acting in self-defense and the murder was pre-meditated.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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