Gruesome video footage taken at a Colorado federal penitentiary of two inmates taunting guards and mutilating the corpse of their cellmate won't be released to the news media any time soon -- even though the videos were shown in open court to two juries in a failed effort to obtain the death penalty against the killers.
Tuesday's decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is another setback in the battle by the feisty Prison Legal News to obtain the complete video. The paper sought to provide on its website a firsthand look at what corrections officers found in 1999 when they discovered cousins William and Rudy Sablan exulting in the killing and disembowelment of Joey Estrella. The murder went down in the special housing unit of the USP Florence, the scene of other inmate homicides and staff misconduct leading up to Estrella's murder.
Westword, Sixty Minutes, the Associated Press and other organizations had joined as "friends of the court" in filing a brief supporting PLN's request, which pitted the right of access to public records against the "privacy interests" of Estrella's family.
The Sablans got life sentences for the killing. The U.S. Attorney's Office, which had been eager to display images of them mutilating Estrella's body to horrified juries, objected to releasing the materials to PLN after the trials were concluded. Eventually, the government did release a portion of the video that doesn't show Estrella's body and an audio track of the censored portion, minus a few comments by the Sablans.
PLN attorneys argued, among other points, that a government video played in open court becomes part of the judicial record and that Estrella, a federal prisoner, had less of a "privacy interest" than a private citizen. But the appeals court ruled that Estrella's survivors have an "independent" interest in not seeing the materials made public -- one that trumps any freedom-of-information right.
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Whether the point at issue is sufficiently contestable to end up on further appeal isn't clear. But fundamental questions remain about Estrella's decade-old killing -- questions that aren't likely to be answered soon. Such as: What were three prisoners doing in a cell designed for one? Where did the Sablans get the booze and the razor they used in their drunken surgery? Where were the guards while Estrella was screaming for help?
Sometimes a privacy interest protects more than just the sensibilities of the bereaved.
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