Four years ago, 47-year-old Troy Phillips was found lying in a pool of his own blood inside his locked cell at the Fresno County Jail.
Correctional officials quickly arrested his cellmate, Jose “Jesse” Guadalupe Cuevas, who was accused of using a small pencil to stab Phillips in his neck, face and eyes more than a dozen times.
On Monday, Cuevas, now 30, finally stood trial on a charge of murder in connection with the Feb. 14, 2012, killing of Phillips. But Fresno defense attorney Antonio Alvarez contends Cuevas is not guilty because he could not form the specific intent to commit murder. In general, a defendant must intend to kill or have a depraved indifference to human life to be guilty of murder.
In opening statements of Cuevas’ trial, Alvarez told the jury that four court-appointed doctors have diagnosed Cuevas with schizophrenia, a disorder Fresno County jail officials failed to treat with medication. Therefore, Cuevas is not guilty of killing Phillips by reason of insanity, Alvarez contends.
The stakes in Judge Timothy Kams’ courtroom are high because if found guilty of murder, Cuevas will be sentenced to life in prison. If he is found insane, he would be sent to a secured state hospital for the criminally insane.
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.
Phillips’ death also prompted his family to sue Fresno County for wrongful death in U.S. District Court, a case that remains active.
While sheriff’s officials say there was no way to prevent Phillips’ slaying, the federal lawsuit contends Fresno County jail officials knew Cuevas was psychotic, yet left him untreated.
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 is now ready to answer to the murder charge, Alvarez said Monday.
“Atascadero finally got the right balance of medication,” Alvarez said. “Cuevas is as competent as he will ever be.”
In opening statements, both sides agree that Phillips and Cuevas shared a cell on the fifth floor of the main jail.
My neighbor is dead.
A voice in Cell 9 of the Fresno County Jail
Prosecutor William Lacy told the jury that Cuevas drove a pencil – similar to those used by golfers to mark their scorecards – into Phillips’ neck and face 15 to 17 times. He said Cuevas also punched or kicked Phillips in the face.
The attack happened in Cell 9 of A Pod around 6:05 a.m. just as correctional officers finished a shift change. The jailers were in the control tower when the intercom activated from Cell 9. “My neighbor is dead,” the voice said.
Correctional officers first went to Cell 10, but the inmates there told them to check Cell 9. In front of Cell 9, correctional officer Brandon Castro testified he saw a pool of blood seeping from under the cell door. Castro said he then looked through the window and saw Phillips lying in a pool of blood. He said Cuevas was pacing inside.
“I ordered him to lay on the ground,” Castro said. Cuevas complied.
He and two other officers unlocked the cell, entered it and handcuffed Cuevas, who had blood on his hands and feet. Phillips appeared to be unconscious, Castro testified.
Lacy told the jury that three bloody pencils were seized as evidence, as well as a broken plastic “spork,” a utensil that looks like a spoon and fork.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s going on? Stop!
Murder victim Troy Phillips
Before the attack, Lacy said, inmates heard Phillips crying for help and saying: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s going on? Stop!”
Phillips died a week later after being taken off life support at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, Lacy told the jury.
Sheriff’s officials have said that Cuevas and Phillips were housed together because they were accused of committing similar thefts. In court papers, the county’s lawyers want the federal lawsuit dismissed because there were no previous fights between the two men, Cuevas never threatened Phillips, and Phillips never said he feared being assaulted by Cuevas.
Court records show the lawsuit is still active in federal court. According to the suit, Phillips never had a chance.
“Defendants (Fresno County) in this case dropped Troy DeWayne Phillips into a snake pit, locked him in, and left him to die,” the lawsuit says. “There can be no clearer case of a state-created danger than where jailers lock a man in a cell with an inmate whom they know to be violent and severely mentally ill.”
According to the lawsuit, Cuevas was known to be psychotic with severe untreated mental illness. “These characteristics of Mr. Cuevas were well-known to defendants, because Mr. Cuevas had been in the custody of Fresno County Jail for six months, defecating on himself, publicly masturbating, and assaulting at least two cellmates before Mr. Phillips,” the lawsuit says.
In addition, the lawsuit says, an inmate in a nearby cell tried to alert jail staff to Cuevas’ mental condition before Phillips was killed. The inmate, however, was told by deputies that Cuevas needed to ask for help himself. Cuevas was incapable of seeking help himself, the lawsuit says.
In defending Cuevas, Alvarez said psychologists Harold Seymour and Robert Taylor and psychiatrists Dr. Howard Terrell and Dr. Luis Velosa examined Cuevas separately and they all concluded he suffers from schizophrenia.
In addition, when Seymour examined Cuevas in August 2011 and April 2012, he found Cuevas to have “an untreated psychotic disorder,” Alvarez said. During the August 2011 examination, Cuevas’ speech was rambling, his thoughts were disorganized, and he randomly recited the names of U.S. presidents “out of the blue,” Alvarez told the jury.
“The evidence will show that Mr. Cuevas did not act with malice aforethought, or with premeditation or deliberation,” Alvarez said, pointing out the criminal element to commit murder.