A Superior Court jury deliberated two hours Thursday before finding a mentally ill man guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of 47-year-old Troy Phillips, who was found lying in a pool of his own blood inside his locked cell at the Fresno County Jail in February 2012.
In the trial, both sides agreed that Jose “Jesse” Guadalupe Cuevas killed Phillips by stabbing him with a small pencil in the neck, face and eyes more than a dozen times on Feb. 14, 2012.
What was in dispute was whether Cuevas, 30, had the specific intent to commit murder since four court-appointed doctors said he suffers from schizophrenia. And at least one of the doctors said Cuevas had an “untreated psychotic disorder.”
Before the jury deliberated, Fresno defense attorney Antonio Alvarez said in closing arguments that Cuevas was “in the midst of a psychotic state and his schizophrenia was acting up” when he killed Phillips. Cuevas, therefore, could not premeditate or deliberate the killing of Phillips, a requirement for first-degree murder, Alvarez said.
Because of his illness, Cuevas also isn’t guilty of second-degree murder, which requires a depraved indifference for human life, Alvarez said.
The killing of Troy Phillips sparked The Bee’s 2013 special report called “Locked In Terror,” which investigated Fresno County’s treatment of jail inmates with mental illness and how medications were improperly administered.
But prosecutor William Lacy told the jury that schizophrenia isn’t a defense for murder. He said the doctors who examined Cuevas couldn’t say for sure that he was in a psychotic state when he committed the slaying.
Lacy also said Cuevas was prescribed the anti-psychotic medication Abilify six weeks before Phillips was found dead. Lacy said a psychologist who examined Cuevas two weeks after the killing noted in medical records that the Abilify was working because Cuevas didn’t report having hallucinations or delusions.
In addition, when Cuevas killed Phillips, he informed jail staff through the intercom system, and told them he had stabbed Phillips in the neck, just as the evidence indicated, Lacy said. Cuevas understood the correctional officers’ orders to lie on the floor so he could be handcuffed, Lacy told the jury. He also didn’t attack the officers, Lacy said.
Most important, Cuevas never said he heard voices or thought Phillips was a demon, Lacy said.
The trial now moves into a second phase, starting Monday, when the same jury will determine whether Cuevas is not guilty by reason of insanity.
First-degree murder carries a penalty of 25 years to life in prison.
If he is found insane, Cuevas will be sent to a secured state hospital to serve his punishment. If found sane, Cuevas will be sentenced to prison.
The killing of Phillips sparked The Bee’s 2013 special report called “Locked In Terror,” which investigated Fresno County’s treatment of jail inmates with mental illness and how medications were improperly administered.
Outside court on Wednesday, Alvarez said, though Cuevas was prescribed Abilify, there was no evidence presented at the trial that he took the medication in jail for his schizophrenia.
Phillips’ death also prompted his family to sue Fresno County for wrongful death in U.S. District Court, a case that remains active.