Profiles in Snitching

At the moment the jury is still out in the first-degree murder trial of David Bueno, an inmate at the Limon state prison accused of killing another prisoner. Bueno and Alejandro Perez (who has yet to go to trial) face possible death sentences in the slaying, the prosecution of which is being bankrolled by the Colorado Department of Corrections—an arrangement explored in a recent cover story, “Death Benefits.”

The death-penalty aspect of the case puzzles opponents of capital punishment; the State of Colorado has never sought the ultimate punishment for an inmate-on-inmate homicide before. You could say that, unlike many of her colleagues, 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers views the lives of inmates as every bit as precious (and worthy of retribution) as those of regular citizens; or you could say that Chambers, whose office is handling six of the seven capital cases now pending in the state, just has a different notion about how to stem the violence that occurs inside prisons. But the kind of code that prevails among prison gangs is so convoluted that logical efforts at deterrence may fall well short of the mark.

The victim in the current case is Jeffrey Heird, who was beaten and stabbed to death after being labeled a snitch by a prison gang. Actually, Heird apparently got in trouble for not being a snitch; testimony in the case has indicated he had a close relationship with a female guard, found out about a pending bust of drugs being smuggled into the prison—and failed to tip off the gang.

In closing arguments, chief deputy district attorney Dan May likened the inmates who testified against Bueno to the senators showcased in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. They “put their lives on the line,” May insisted, to come forward and tell what they knew about a gang killing.

Maybe so. But Bueno’s attorney attempted to persuade the jury that not only were the prosecution witnesses classic prison snitches—something that can indeed get you killed, as documented here and here – but they also received special breaks on their sentences to testify, a claim that prosecutors angrily disputed.

It’s hard to discern all the shadowy motives behind a killing inside a prison—or, for that matter, the true motives of the hardened cons who ultimately appear in court to talk about what happened, either on the side of the defense or the prosecution. But you can bet that none of them are doing it out of civic duty, and none of them remotely resemble the kind of people JFK set out to celebrate.

Prison killings tend to be murky, messy affairs, among people to whom the usual deterrents to crime just don’t matter. And that’s one reason no prosecutor in this state has tried to get the death-penalty for an inmate homicide—until now. – Alan Prendergast

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Sean Cronin