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‘He meant to kill,' prosecution contends as death penalty trial begins

February 16, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Opening statements started Wednesday in the death penalty case against a Calipatria State Prison inmate accused of first-degree murder in the 1998 slaying of another inmate.

Attorneys involved have estimated it could take two months to try the case, which is being presided over by Imperial County Superior Court Judge James Harmon in the County Courthouse in El Centro.

Tight security marked the start of the trial as authorities stood outside the courtroom and those entering had to pass through a metal detector.

The District Attorney's Office is arguing that inmate Louis Gomez, 24, stabbed to death inmate Abe Mendibles on April 13, 1998, in a premeditated act.

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Gomez was in court Wednesday morning flanked by his defense team as Deputy District Attorney Karla Davis told the jury she is going to prove through testimony that Gomez killed Mendibles in cold blood.

"The victim was unarmed and defenseless," Davis said, adding Gomez waited until the class was being shown a video and the lights were dim to attack Mendibles.

She said Gomez stabbed Mendibles 14 times before Mendibles had a chance to stand up and defend himself.

"He meant to kill," Davis said.

Defense attorney John Breeze of El Centro told a different story, one in which his client acted in self-defense against an older and more experienced inmate who had threatened Gomez.

Breeze told the jury Gomez will admit he killed Mendibles, but added his client did not mean to kill Mendibles. Instead, he wanted to disable the man.

Breeze told the jury Mendibles, who was in his 40s, had been in prison most of his adult life and, after Gomez was sent to Calipatria State Prison, Mendibles became his mentor.

Mendibles, according to Breeze, shared information with Gomez that he was going to try to get a new cellmate instead of the one he had been with for an extended time.

Breeze said Gomez told that to another inmate when Mendibles did not want such information shared with others. That enraged Mendibles, who then threatened Gomez.

Breeze told the jury his client tried to make peace with Mendibles but the older inmate was unwilling to listen.

Instead, Breeze contended, Mendibles told Gomez to arm himself. Breeze told the jury Mendibles showed Gomez a prison-made shank, or knife, he had in his sock while in a gym not long before they went to the classroom where the stabbing occurred.

Believing his life was in immediate danger, Breeze said, Gomez got a prison weapon Mendibles kept over an "exit" sign in the education building and used that weapon to stab Mendibles.

Breeze told the jury his client does not know why no weapon was found on Gomez. He also said his client does not remember much about the stabbing.

He further claimed Gomez suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, a condition he has had since he witnessed his brother killed in a gang-style shooting in Los Angeles when his own life was threatened.

Certain information has not been made public in the case and likely will only be released after the jury decides whether Gomez is guilty of first-degree murder.

Information not released includes the crime for which Gomez was sent to Calipatria or the length of his sentence.

If convicted Gomez could face the death penalty or life in prison, depending on special circumstances in the case. One is whether he was lying in wait to attack Mendibles. The other has not been made public.

Wednesday's start of the trial came after the Fourth District Court of Appeal denied a writ sought by Davis to challenge a ruling in the case Harmon made a week earlier.

Harmon ruled the one count of first-degree murder be separated from a second count Gomez is facing in relation to the case.

Information on that second count has not been released to the jury. Severing that count means it would have to be dealt with in a separate trial, depending on the jury's action on the murder count.

Davis sought to challenge that ruling through the appellate court, which Monday denied the writ.

The trial was to continue today.

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

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