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Jury finds prison inmate innocent

mistrial declared

April 04, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

A Calipatria State Prison inmate who in 1998 stabbed another inmate to death was found not guilty of first-degree murder by an Imperial County jury Wednesday.

However, the jury was divided 7-5 on a lesser charge of second-degree murder and Superior Court Judge James Harmon declared a mistrial in relation to that charge.

The murder case involved Louis Gomez, who on April 13, 1998 stabbed fellow inmate Abe Mendibles 14 times, killing him inside a prison classroom.

During two months of testimony, Deputy District Attorney Karla Davis attempted to prove Gomez was a cold-blooded killer guilty of premeditated murder.

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Defense attorney John Breeze of El Centro attempted to prove his client was a scared 18-year-old when he entered Calipatria State Prison and his life had been threatened by Mendibles. Breeze argued Gomez killed Mendibles in self-defense.

If Gomez had been found guilty of first-degree murder he could have faced the death penalty.

However, he still could be facing the death penalty as the District Attorney's Office seeks to re-try him for second-degree murder and on a count separated from the first phase of the trial — assault by a life prisoner. Davis said if found guilty of that count, Gomez could still receive the death penalty.

The charge of assault by a life prisoner was separated out of the initial trial as the jury was not allowed to know Gomez was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a first-degree murder conviction.

He was convicted previously on two counts of robbery and one count of attempted robbery. During one of those robberies an accomplice of Gomez shot and killed a store owner. That led to Gomez's conviction for first- degree murder.

Of the not guilty verdict in the Mendibles killing, Davis said, "I'm disappointed obviously. We will re-try this and continue to seek the death penalty."

She added, "We still believe this is a first-degree murder case."

Breeze said he would have preferred the jury find in favor of self-defense and that Gomez was not guilty of first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter.

"I think the jurors felt this was not a first-degree, premeditated murder," Breeze said.

On the split vote on the second-degree murder issue, Breeze said it resulted from whether the jurors believed Gomez was afraid for his life when he killed Mendibles.

Breeze said he would work to resolve the case before a new trial begins, adding he has always worked to settle the case.

This was the first death-penalty case tied to a local state prison to be tried in the County Courthouse in El Centro.

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

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