This morning's guilty verdict in the murder trial of William Concepcion Sablan -- a federal inmate who, assisted by his cousin, slaughtered and gutted another prisoner named Joey Estrella -- wasn't a surprise to anyone familiar with even the barest details of the case. The 1999 killing went down in a tiny cell inhabited by all three men in the Florence high-security penitentiary, and the jury got an eyeful of Sablan's manic, post-killing behavior -- a video taken by guards showed him abusing the corpse, gargling with Estrella's blood and exhibiting the entrails of his victim.
Jurors must now decide if Sablan should receive the death penalty. But the same government now pushing for his death has neatly sidestepped its own culpability -- one might almost say collusion -- in the Hannibal Lecterish disemboweling of the hapless Estrella.
Sablan's lawyers tried to shift the blame for the crime to William's cousin, Rudy Sablan, whose trial is still pending. Rudy was a notorious gang leader in their native Saipan, and William has been characterized as head-injured, possibly insane and "borderline retarded." But in his closing argument, defense attorney Nathan Chambers also tried to focus attention on how poorly the prison was run. How could such a crime take place, he asked, in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) -- supposedly the most restrictive cellblock in one of the highest security prisons in the country?
It's a damn good question. Only the most profound indifference on the part of the warden and the staff could have created the kind of abattoir USP Florence had become in the late 1990s, a place of routine violence and multiple homicides; check out "Marked for Death", which explores the whole situation surrounding Estrella's death. The SHU was supposed to be the "protective custody" unit, but it housed gang leaders and other disruptive prisoners as well as snitches -- a very bad combination, but the guards didn't seem to care. In fact, they were busy putting together their own gang to assault prisoners in the overcrowded SHU, as detailed in this 2003 article, "Cowboy Justice."
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If one wanted to indict the entire Bureau of Prisons for not giving a shit whether its prisoners lived or died, the Estrella killing is Exhibit A. Consider the genius behind putting the Sablan cousins, both of whom have a history of assaulting other inmates, in a seven-by-ten cell with a third man. Consider the fact that all three were fried to the gills on prison hooch. (According to the autopsy report, Estrella's blood-alcohol was more than double the legal limit.) Consider the amount of time it took to strangle Estrella, slash his throat dozens of times, remove his liver, spleen, and part of his intestines, and wave the organs at other prisoners through the cell door as if they were trophies from a big-game hunt. Consider the access to the kind of sharp tools (in this case, a contraband razor) to perform such a feat of surgery.
Where were the guards while all this drinking, fighting, hacking, screaming and liver-gnawing was going on? Blowing off required safety checks and ignoring a distress signal, apparently. Hours earlier, according to one witness, Estrella begged a guard to move him to another cell. The guard just laughed.
On its website, the BOP boasts that it protects society by running prisons "that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure." The mission is supposed to be about not simply protecting the outside world from the prisoners but the prisoners from each other. But that seems to have been forgotten long ago. The crusaders at the Department of Justice were so outraged by Joey Estrella's death that they didn't even bother to file charges for years; now, almost eight years after the murder, they finally have a conviction. And they're so outraged that only another death or two will suffice to avenge the first.
The federal death penalty is rarely used. Sablan's murder might be just outrageous enough to make the grade. But here's the sticking point: to do what he did to Estrella while they were both in federal custody required a lot of help, from the same busted justice system that now wants him to take the fall alone. -- Alan Prendergast