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Death penalty case nears closure

March 27, 2002|By DARREN SIMON

Staff Writer

Attorneys launched into their closing arguments Tuesday in what has been the first death penalty case from a local prison tried in Imperial County.

Calipatria State Prison inmate Louis Gomez is accused of first-degree murder in the killing of inmate Abe Mendibles with a prison-made shank on April 13, 1998.

Attorneys were to continue their arguments today in the county Courthouse in El Centro, and by midday the case was to be turned over to the jury.

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Whether Gomez is guilty of first-degree murder, some lesser offense or whether he was defending himself against an inmate who had reportedly made threats against his life is to be decided.

Gomez, who is already serving a life sentence, stabbed inmate Abe Mendibles, also a lifer, 14 times with a shank as the two were in a prison classroom. Four of the wounds were considered fatal.

Throughout the trial, Deputy District Attorney Karla Davis has portrayed Gomez, 24, as a calculating killer who willfully took the life of Mendibles, in his 40s at the time of his death.

Defense Attorney John Breeze has portrayed Gomez in a different light.

He said Mendibles was to blame for his own death, stating that he was an older, more experienced inmate who was known for violence, who manufactured shanks and who had made threats against Gomez.

Breeze also has focused on the setting of Calipatria State Prison, the most violent prison — he claimed — in the state where inmates have to take steps to protect themselves.

Throughout closing remarks, Gomez sat quietly looking straight ahead. He did at times turn and smile at his family in the courtroom, including his mother.

If the jury finds Gomez guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances, Gomez could face the death penalty. One such circumstance was that Gomez was laying in wait to kill Mendibles.

Davis was the first to give her closing arguments.

She told the jury self-defense does not fit this case.

"Just because you fear future harm, that does not constitute imperfect self-defense," she told the jury. "The danger had to be imminent."

She said Gomez would be acting in self-defense only if he had reason to think that Mendibles — at the moment he was attacked — was himself about to strike.

Davis reminded the jury Mendibles was not found with a shank on him at the time he was killed.

She spoke against the idea that the California Department of Corrections and the Calipatria prison are to blame for the killing.

"The California Department of Corrections is not on trial," she said, adding, "That is what they (the defense team) have tried to do throughout this case."

She said, "The circle of violence that goes on at Calipatria State or at any other maximum security prison occurs because of the prisoners. They do not break the cycle of violence."

Davis added the shank reportedly used by Gomez is known as a "bone crusher"; the kind of shank used not when an inmate wants to "check" another inmate but rather "take an inmate out."

She told the jury, "I see no other verdict for you to bring than first-degree murder."

Breeze followed with his closing statements, which will continue today.

He spoke of Mendibles' own violent past, which included two manslaughter convictions. In one case he used a knife in causing the death of another individual. Mendibles was serving a life sentence. The other offense was for vehicular manslaughter.

Breeze said when Gomez entered the state prison system he was 18 — a scared young man, he said, who kept to himself and avoided others.

Gomez had been convicted on two counts of robbery and an attempted robbery charge. In one of the robberies an associate shot and killed a store owner.

Breeze told the jury, "I submit to you that Mr. Gomez was the little lamb" thrown into the wolve's den.

He asked the jury to consider who would had been the aggressor, the experienced Mendibles or the younger Gomez.

"You have to look at the environment they were in," Breeze said. "Mr. Gomez was in a very violent environment."

He used statistics that showed a history of violence at Calipatria where, he said, nine to 10 slashings occur every month.

"That's the reality out there," he said. "If the Department of Corrections did a better job, we would not have so many stabbings."

Breeze also spoke of how his client suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on, he said, by witnessing his older brother killed in Los Angeles.

He added PTSD can cause an individual to have a heightened sense of fear when faced with a threat of bodily harm. Breeze said Mendibles made threats against Gomez.

"Are these credible threats?" Breeze asked. "Were they threats of bodily harm?"

He told the jury if it answers yes to those questions, then it must find Gomez not guilty on grounds of self-defense.

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

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