A Supermax Slaughter Cuts Both Ways

The trial of Rudy Sablan for the gruesome 1999 murder of cellmate Joey Estrella at the high-security U.S. penitentiary in Florence gets underway this week in Denver's federal court. It's only taken nine years — speedy by government work — for the case to get this far, but some interesting revelations should be in store soon.

Some time in the next few days, prosecutors will play for the jury the horrific video footage taken by corrections officers who responded, belatedly, to a disturbance in the Special Housing Unit of USP Florence one October night. As reported in more detail here, cousins Rudy and William Sablan got into a rather serious disagreement with Estrella in the cell they all shared during a long night of drinking and playing cards. By the time the horrified officers arrived, Estrella's entrails were on display in the blood-soaked cell, and the defiant, intoxicated cousins were mocking their captors and the corpse.

The feds are seeking the death penalty in the much-delayed case. But as they found out when prosecuting William Sablan last year, juries are reluctant to impose the ultimate penalty even for the most horrendous crimes inside a supermax. As pointed out here, the circumstances of the Estrella homicide cut both ways, so to speak. How could such a crime take place in the most restrictive cellblock in one of the highest security prisons in the federal system? What were three prisoners doing in a cell designed to hold one, especially when two of them are related and have a history of being assaultive toward other prisoners? Where did they get the booze and the kind of sharp tools (including a contraband razor) to perform this kind of surgery? Where were the guards while Estrella was trying to fend off his attackers and screaming for help?

The defense plans to make much of these questions, of course, as William Sablan's attorneys did last year. Ironically, one of William's attorneys happened to be Nathan Chambers, who did a great job of focusing the jury's attention on how poorly the prison was being run. Chambers is the husband of 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers, who's seeking the death penalty against two state inmates for a homicide at the Limon Correctional Facility — and whose office was just removed from prosecuting one of those cases because of allegations of misconduct. When it comes to murders inside prisons, it's possible to encounter more than one point of view — even in the same family. –- Alan Prendergast

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Sean Cronin