Marked for Death

Trapped in a prison race war, Tony Francis had three choices: kill, snitch or run. He found another way out.

Estrella's autopsy report doesn't quite support either scenario. His throat was cut and he was eviscerated -- stomach split open, intestines hanging out, liver and spleen removed. The excised organs were found near his body, but a piece of the liver was missing, and what remained had been "partially dissected" or possibly gnawed. There was no trace of drugs (packaged or not) in his system. He was, however, quite drunk.

A third theory of the crime, one that is more consistent with the autopsy report, states that Estrella was butchered by his cellmates because he'd been identified as a check-in. Before the killing, he begged a guard to move him to another cell but was ignored. Afterward, his cellmates held up pieces of him, showing them off to other inmates as an object lesson.

That was the version presented at the Francis trial by Skinhead leader Saxon Taylor, who happened to be in the SHU that night, stationed in a cell across the hall. His account was terse and unsentimental.

"That was intense," Taylor said. "Mexican dude came to the hole. Owed a little bit of money to some people. They put him in a cell with a savage -- this dude and his cousin -- right across the hall from me. Dude hollers to me, asks for some cigarettes. I slide them over on the line, see them drinking wine, playing cards. After a while, the word comes down that this new guy is no good.

"Ten o'clock count comes around. The Mexican dude says to the cop, "Hey, man, you got to get me another cell.' Cop laughs, says, "Who's winning?'

"Midnight count rolls around. Dude's liver is thrown on the window. Dude's intestines are hanging on the clothesline. His heart is on the table. Dude's dead."

Taylor was wrong about some details. Estrella's heart was still in his body, which was reportedly discovered around three in the morning, not midnight. But the prosecution didn't even bother to challenge the skinhead's account. Given the indisputable evidence of Estrella's corpse -- the blunt trauma to the head, the gaping wounds in the neck, the exquisite force and razor sharpness of the instruments required to invade his belly, ripping through a tattoo of the Virgin Mary to tug at the sacred mysteries inside -- who could argue the point?

The death of Joey Estrella spoke volumes about what can and does happen in the SHU. Tony Francis could not have had a more eloquent witness in his defense.

Q: Why is staff unable to stop the violence?

A: I think they can only control it at ADX. No human contact.

Q: Do you feel safe in a USP?

A: I feel safe when the door locks at night.-- Examination of Joseph Anthony Leissler, convicted murderer and USP inmate

"This is huge. Nobody knows of a verdict like this. This is an explicit statement that the Bureau of Prisons is not doing its job."

Surrounded by boxes of court records and transcripts, David Lane sits in his office in downtown Denver, fielding phone calls and discussing the verdict in the Francis case. On April 29 the jury found Francis and Haney not guilty of attempted escape. The two men were convicted of the lesser charge of possession of escape paraphernalia. Now Lane is rapid-dialing prosecutors and the judge's chambers; he and Janine Yunker are trying to block a BOP move to transfer their clients back to Florence prior to their sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled.

To Lane, the mixed verdict is a stunning victory. The jury specifically found Tony Francis not guilty of attempted escape by reason of duress, meaning that they believed he was in danger of immediate harm and had no other reasonable options available to save his life. "I don't know of any case where there has been an acquittal for attempted escape from a USP based on anything, much less duress or coercion," Lane says. "This is a jury statement that the BOP runs a system that is incapable of mitigating the violence that exists there."

Yunker agrees. "The government may feel they have all these options for people to protect themselves, but they don't really deal with the world that convicts live in," she says. "Tony Francis chose not to live in that world as a snitch."

Ray Holt, the warden of USP Florence, declined a request for comment on the Francis case. A spokesman for the United States Attorney's Office says that prosecutors are satisfied with the verdict, since both men were convicted of a felony that could add up to five years to their time. (In light of federal sentencing guidelines, Lane and Yunker say they expect the actual sentence to be much less than the maximum.)

Yet there are aspects of Tony Francis's prison career that the jury knew nothing about. In addition to the 1990 attempted escape from a federal pen and his 1993 flight from the Phoenix jail, prosecutors had evidence that Francis had been involved in at least three other escape attempts. In 1994, after Francis had been recaptured and returned to a cell in Maricopa County, the hinges on a steel door in the jail were found to have been cut through; metal shavings were found in Francis's cell. Later that same year, a search of his cell at Lewisburg turned up two handcuff keys. In 1996, a search of a Lewisburg recreation area netted a sheet rope, a coat that had been given the camouflage treatment with paint and grass, and other materials; Francis was a prime suspect.

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