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10th Circuit rules against PLN in FOIA case seeking access to prison murder video

Associated Press, Jan. 11, 2011.
10th Circuit rules against PLN in FOIA case seeking access to prison murder video - Associated Press 2011

Court denies media access to gruesome prison video

P. SOLOMON BANDA Associated Press

Posted: 01/11/2011 01:22:25 PM MST
Updated: 01/11/2011 05:33:35 PM MST

DENVER—A federal appellate court in Denver has denied the media access to video and autopsy photographs showing the mutilation of a prison inmate killed by his cellmates even though the images were used by prosecutors during two criminal trials.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the release of the video and photographs of Joey Jesus Estrella's body at the federal penitentiary in Florence would be an unwarranted violation of the Estrella family's privacy. Prison Legal News, a prisoner rights legal journal based in West Brattleboro, VT, had argued that the video and photographs should be available because they were used during the trials of William and Rudy Sablan and could answer questions about the conditions at the prison.

Both Sablans, who are cousins, were convicted of first-degree murder in separate trials in 2007 and 2008 and were sentenced to life in prison for the 1999 slaying of Estrella. Numerous media outlets filed court documents in support of Prison Legal News request under the Freedom of Information Act, including The Associated Press.

In its opinion, the appellate court cited several cases including the withholding of audio of the last words of the astronauts when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 as well as a U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving withholding the release of death-scene photographs of the July 1993 suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster.

The panel agreed with a lower court that the release of the video, along with withheld portions of the video's audio, and autopsy photographs "could impede the family's ability to mourn Mr. Estrella's death in private and achieve emotional closure."

What's different in this case is that the documents being sought were publicly displayed and are an open record because they were used during a criminal trial said Gail Johnson and Paul Wright, the legal journal's attorney and editor, respectively. Both said the opinion will be appealed.

"To our knowledge this is an unprecedented decision that allows the government to cloak with secrecy exhibits that were introduced by the government at a public trial, not under seal," said Johnson, who is based in Boulder. "It violates the fundamental legal principle that a trial is a public event and that what transpires in a court room is public property."

U.S. Attorney spokesman Jeff Dorschner said prosecutors were pleased with the opinion, but declined to elaborate.

Among issues raised during trial were lapses at the prison that allowed inmate access to homemade wine, guards' failure to respond to an alarm button pushed in the cell, and why three men were placed in a cell designed for two.

"There is a lot to be said for the public being able to view stuff and form their own opinion," Wright said. "Here we are going on 12 years after the murder happened and there are still a lot of unanswered questions."

In its opinion, the panel said information in the records sought by the legal journal is already publicly known and arguments that they could "shed light on the conditions of confinement also rings hollow."

"The public's interest in that incremental addition of information over what is already known is outweighed by the Estrella family's strong privacy interest in this case," the panel wrote.

Denver defense attorney Dan Recht, who also handles First Amendment cases, said media companies don't often seek that type of information, which means there is little guidance on what the government can withhold from the media.

"This is a difficult area with conflicting interests," Recht said. "We might all agree in the extreme case of rape victim photographs, for example, that such things shouldn't be disclosed even if used at a trial."