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Article takes government to task for refusing PLN's FOIA request for prison murder video

Denver Post, March 11, 2010.
Article takes government to task for refusing PLN's FOIA request for prison murder video - Denver Post 2010

Justice Dept. claims depraved killers have privacy rights

By Susan Greene

Denver Post Columnist
Posted: 03/11/2010 01:00:00 AM MST

I don't care about the privacy rights of depraved prison killers.

Neither, I'm pretty sure, do the feds.

Still, the Justice Department is purporting to protect William and Rudy Sablan's privacy rights in a case in which it's refusing to hand over images taken after the cousins strangled, disemboweled and cannibalized an inmate while drunk in a crowded prison cell.

U.S. attorneys had no concern about privacy interests when they showed gruesome videos and autopsy photos in open court while seeking the death penalty against the killers. Their hypocritical move to now cloak the pictures in secrecy seems like an attempt to cover up problems at the high-security U.S. Penitentiary in Florence.

This much is clear: Three prisoners were packed into a cell made for two in 1999 when the Sablans were drinking hooch in the space they shared with Joey Estrella. Hammered, they strangled him, slashed his throat and mutilated his body. A video shows them slapping his corpse in the face, drinking his blood and apparently taking a bite out of his liver.

Jurors, lawyers and reporters who saw the tape at trial are haunted by the images.

Watchdogs at Prison Legal News are fighting for the photos and video under the Freedom of Information Act. It's not the sight of blood and guts that motivates them, says editor Paul Wright. Rather, it's an interest in shedding light on why inmates in one of our tightest- security prisons had access to booze and weapons.

Only the images, he argues, could fully reveal conditions inside the cell and the threat posed to Estrella when the Bureau of Prisons crammed the cousins in with him.

The Justice Department denied the paper the pictures.

Judge Marcia Krieger largely upheld the denial in a decision letting the government withhold evidence already shown in public at two trials. "The asserted public interests do not outweigh the (Estrella) family's privacy interest," she ruled.

Problem is that Estrella's family posed no privacy objection at the trials. And the feds long have argued that prisoners have no privacy rights. And the Obama administration has vowed a "New Era of Open Government" in which "information should not be withheld merely because public officials might be embarrassed ... or failures might be revealed."

Lip service, apparently.

Because now that the case is under appeal, the Justice Department is asserting not just the privacy of the family of Estrella, who has been dead for a decade, but also of the Sablans who, it says, "had a privacy interest in a video depicting them partially clothed and handcuffed."

That's right, your government and mine has the nerve to argue it's more important to shroud the nakedness of two sickos than to disclose evidence of a prison murder and shed light on a complex where several other killings have taken place. The feds refuse to comment, hiding behind pending litigation about their newfound privacy interests.

This week, a long list of allies joined the newspaper's battle by filing a court brief. They include The Associated Press, CBS News, Westword, the American Society of News Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Congress passed its transparency law to keep government honest. Sunshine, the argument goes, is the best disinfectant. If ever a place needs disinfecting, it's the federal prison complex in Florence.