Prisoner on trial for riot death

January 16, 2003 12:00 am

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

The trial of a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate accused of orchestrating the prison's deadly February 2000 riot began yesterday in Del Norte County.

Inmate Jose Luis Sanchez, 33, is being tried for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of attempted murder, riot with serious bodily injury to blacks, and multiple civil-rights violations because victims were targeted because of their race, according to court documents.

Sanchez is accused of planning the riot that involved 200 inmates and caused 16 injuries and one death. The fatality happened when Miguel Sanchez, a 22-year-old inmate from South Gate, was shot by a prison guard.

"It's a rarely used legal theory called the ‘provocative act murder theory,'" said Sanchez's defense attorney Scott Hoxeng. "It's like when three guys rob a liquor store and the police respond. A gun battle breaks out and one of the robbers is shot and killed by police. The other suspects are held accountable for his death."

Hoxeng said he didn't know how many such prosecutions have been successful in the past, but he indicated the convictions are often appealed.

During opening statements, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jim Fallman told the jury Sanchez was part of a prison gang hierarchy whose orders could not be easily refused.

"The society inside a prison is not what you, as a jury, experience on the outside," Fallman said. "It's a different set of rules. It's not a representative democracy but a highly structured dictatorship built along ethnic lines."

Hoxeng argued his client is a scapegoat because people more closely responsible for the inmate's death escaped prosecution.

"(It's) our belief that the authorities of the prison were aware of the impending riot and did not stop it, and that will become more clear as the trial continues," Hoxeng said. "The other people involved were either given deals or were never charged."

The riot, which erupted on Feb. 23, 2000, began when a large group of Hispanic inmates attacked a smaller group of black inmates in the B yard of the prison.

On the first day of the trial, jurors watched a silent videotape showing prisoners playing basketball and wandering the yard. Suddenly, a mele broke out and clouds of tear gas mushroomed from several areas of the yard. When the clouds cleared, bodies could be seen sprawled on the ground.

Prison personnel initially used nonviolent methods to quell the riot, including pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons. When those measures failed, two guards opened fire from towers. It was determined later the two guards responded appropriately within the California Department of Corrections' policies.

Sanchez was originally incarcerated when he was convicted of second-degree robbery out of Fresno, Calif. in 1996. He was subsequently convicted for possession of a weapon by a prisoner and possession of a controlled substance while in jail.

Sanchez is now confined to the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay. His earliest possible release date for his current convictions is April 26, 2007.

The trial is expected to last from four to six weeks, according to prosecutors.