Two New Folsom inmates were acquitted of murder Thursday in the bloody behind-bars killing of a convicted child molester that prosecutors said was ordered by a prison shot-caller, a verdict that came days after a third man convicted for his role in the alleged plot hanged himself in his cell.
Jurors found Michael Vera and Cameron Welch not guilty of the Feb. 25, 2012, slashing death of Richard Leonard at California State Prison, Sacramento. As the verdicts were read, Vera shed tears and looked in apparent disbelief as Welch exhaled a deep, loud breath.
Prosecutors had argued a prison gang chieftain called for the deadly hit, enlisting inmates Vera, Welch and another man, Samuel Cox, to carry out the killing after learning the targeted prisoner was a convicted child molester.
Cox, said to be in his 50s, had about 10 years left on his second strike offense, his attorney, Laurance Smith, said. Cox’s job, along with another inmate, was to lure their target to a receiving room with a fabricated pass. Prosecutors accused Welch of waiting in the wings before slashing the inmate’s throat and face.
But jurors, deadlocked throughout their deliberation said Thursday that inconsistent inmate and witness statements, a lack of blood evidence on Vera and Welch and investigative holes led them to turn in not guilty verdicts.
“They worked extremely hard on a complex case, but there was a problem with witnesses who contradicted each other,” said Welch defense attorney Alan Whisenand.
Days before Thursday’s verdicts, Cox, convicted by another jury of second-degree murder for his role in the plot, was found hanged in his cell.
Jurors gasped as Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette announced Cox’s death after their verdict.
California State Prison, Sacramento, corrections officials on Thursday confirmed they are investigating Cox’s death and said they have notified family members, but would not say how or when Cox died or provide any other information.
A Sacramento Superior Court jury acquitted Cox of conspiracy to commit murder while lying in wait – a crime with a potential life sentence – but found him guilty of second-degree murder for aiding and abetting the fatal attack. Cox faced 15 years to life.
Smith said he was notified Saturday of his client’s death.