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Death weighed for jail killer

Heriberto Rodriguez could be executed for a fatal attack on a fellow inmate in 2005.

June 19, 2013|Matt Hamilton

Heriberto Eddie Rodriguez was far from a model inmate.

Two months after arriving at the Men's Central Jail, authorities say, the San Fernando Valley gang member beat and kicked his cellmate as he lay on the ground -- then forced him to sleep under the bed.

Weeks later, he allegedly assaulted a new cellmate. The man was clasping at the cell's bars with blood dripping down his face when a sheriff's deputy arrived. He was begging for help.

Rodriguez, who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 165 pounds, stomped on a third cellmate who wouldn't give up his blanket, authorities say, and he was part of a group of prisoners who beat and choked another man who was in custody for a few days for driving on a suspended license.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 27, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Death penalty trial: In the June 19 LATExtra section, an article about the murder trial of Heriberto Eddie Rodriguez said that he had slashed a fellow prison inmate in the shower with a razor blade. Prosecutors say the attack was made through the bars of Rodriguez's cell, not in the shower.

But it was his fifth jailhouse victim that could land Rodriguez, 32, on death row. During dinner at the jail on Nov. 16, 2005, Rodriguez and another inmate, Christian Perez, beat and stomped Chadwick Shane Cochran to death as more than 35 inmates watched, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Shannon Knight.

Both men have been convicted of first-degree murder, and Perez was sentenced to death in April. On Tuesday, Knight told jurors that even after Cochran's death -- and Rodriguez's transfer to a single cell in a disciplinary section of the jail -- Rodriguez's violent conduct didn't end. He assaulted one deputy, threatened another and slashed a fellow inmate with a razor blade in the shower, she said.

"He does not deserve your sympathy, he does not deserve your mercy," Knight said during closing arguments in the penalty phase of Rodriguez's trial. "By his acts, he deserves to die."

After his jailhouse attacks, Knight said, Rodriguez often told his victims to be silent or he would hurt them again. He told one inmate that he would go after the man's family if he snitched, she added.

Rodriguez's attorney, Christopher C. Chaney, acknowledged that his client had been involved in some gruesome crimes in his past, but said that didn't mean he was beyond hope.

Chaney said Rodriguez grew up in poverty with an abusive, alcoholic father. Proof of the family's dysfunction, Chaney said, lay in the fate of his brothers: two are in prison, one of them on death row.

"How can we characterize this as a warm and nurturing home?" Chaney asked.

In an effort to turn his life around four years ago, Rodriguez disavowed his street and prison gang memberships, imperiling his life in custody, Chaney said.

Since 2009, the attorney added, Rodriguez has kept a clean record and married a woman he met while behind bars. He acts as a father to her two children, he said.

His wife sat in the back row Tuesday, sobbing throughout the closing arguments.

Rodriguez's behavior change and family life were "factors of mitigation" that jurors should consider when debating whether to punish him with death, Chaney said.

As his attorney addressed the jury, Rodriguez, dressed in a tan blazer and striped tie and wearing wire-framed glasses, sat impassively.

Knight, the prosecutor, questioned Rodriguez's transformation.

"He's the same manipulative person that he's been," Knight told the jurors. "When was this new leaf turned over?"

Arguing for the maximum punishment, Knight listed a string of violent crimes committed by Rodriguez that stretched back almost a decade, including kidnapping, robbery, carjacking, assault, resisting a Los Angeles Police Department officer and involvement in a killing when he was 15 years old.

"He's had enough second chances," Knight said.

A lesser punishment of life without the possibility of parole is too risky for Rodriguez, Knight told jurors, alluding to his jail assaults.

"What do we tell the family of his next victim?" she asked. "Sorry? We didn't think he was capable of that?"

The jury of five women and seven men began considering Rodriguez's fate Tuesday afternoon and is expected to resume deliberations Wednesday.

--

matthew.hamilton@latimes.com

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