A Superior Court judge on Wednesday reduced a mentally ill man’s first-degree murder conviction to second-degree murder and then sentenced him to 30 years to life in prison for killing his cellmate in the Fresno County Jail four years ago.
Judge Timothy Kams said he made his ruling “in the interest of justice” after citing Jose “Jesse” Guadalupe Cuevas’ long history of mental illness.
The ruling saved the 30-year-old Cuevas an additional 32 years behind bars, Fresno defense attorney Antonio Alvarez said.
Prosecutor William Lacy did not object because Cuevas agreed to waive his appellate rights.
The sentencing ended a tragic case for Cuevas, a schziophrenic, who stabbed Troy Phillips more than a dozen times in the neck and head with a pencil in February 2012.
In the interest of justice.
Judge Timothy Kams
The killing sparked The Fresno 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.
Court records say that a month after the killing, Cuevas was declared legally incompetent to stand trial. A judge ordered him to be confined at Atascadero State Hospital until his sanity was restored with medication and he could understand the charges brought against him. After taking antipsychotic medication for several years, Cuevas was deemed ready to answer to the murder charge.
In Cuevas’ trial in April, Lacy and Alvarez agreed that Cuevas killed Phillips on Feb. 14, 2012, and that court-appointed doctors said Cuevas suffers from schizophrenia.
What was in dispute was whether he understood what he did was legally and morally wrong. If found insane, Cuevas would have done his punishment in a secured state hospital.
Testimony revealed that Cuevas and Phillips were cellmates for less than a month on the fifth floor of the main jail, and that sheriff’s officials said that they were housed together because they were accused of committing similar theft-related crimes.
Alvarez argued that Cuevas was in the midst of a psychotic breakdown and legally insane when he killed Phillips. And psychiatrists Dr. Howard Terrell and Dr. Luis Velosa testified that Cuevas was legally insane when he killed Phillips.
The judge will recommend to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to send Cuevas to a prison that specializes in housing mentally ill inmates.
Lacy, however, told the jury Cuevas killed Phillips because he wanted his own cell. Lacy argued that schizophrenia isn’t a defense for murder and most people with schizophrenia aren’t dangerous. He also pointed out that Terrell and Velosa examined Cuevas two years after the killing and came to their conclusion after spending about an hour with him. He said doctors aren’t “mind readers” and “it’s not difficult for inmates to fool doctors.”
In addition, Lacy said Cuevas was prescribed the anti-psychotic medication Abilify six weeks before Phillips was killed. Lacy said Cuevas was examined two weeks after the killing and medical records show the Abilify was working because Cuevas didn’t report having hallucinations or delusions.
And 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 said. He also didn’t attack the officers, he said.
Under questioning by Lacy, Cuevas appears to admit that it was wrong to kill someone. “I knew it was kinda wrong. I shouldn’t stab no one like that, that many times,” he testified. But Cuevas also testified he was hearing voices at the time. He said he had “no clue” why he did it.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated two hours before finding him guilty of first-degree murder. Jurors later ruled he was legally sane when he committed the murder.
On Wednesday, Alvarez said Cuevas has been doing fine because he takes medication. In his ruling, the judge said he will recommend to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to send Cuevas to a prison that specializes in housing mentally ill inmates.