(CN) – Privacy rights got a nod from the Supreme Court on Monday when the justices declined to intervene in a decision that barred a legal journal from accessing grisly video and autopsy photographs of a Colorado inmate murdered by his cellmates.
William and Rudy Sablan, cousins and prisoners at a Florence, Colo., penitentiary, were convicted of killing their cellmate, Joey Jesus Estrella, in 1999 while reportedly drunk on homemade wine. The Sablans, who are currently serving life sentences, strangled Estrella with a headphone cord, slashed Estrella’s neck with a prison-issue disposable razor and taunted prison guards with Estrella’s entrails, according to media reports.
At the trial, prosecutors showed jurors “gruesome” autopsy photographs and video that the Bureau of Prisons filmed of the cell interior after the murder, including Estrella’s mutilated corpse.
When the U.S. Attorney’s Office took custody of the evidence, Prison Legal News, a nonprofit monthly journal that covers prisoners’ rights issues, requested the videotapes and autopsy photographs under the Freedom of Information Act. The Vermont-based publication filed suit after the Executive Office for United States Attorneys denied their request in full.
A federal judge ordered the office to turn over audio from the first part of the video footage, as well as video of the second portion.
The U.S. attorneys complied with the order and released audio for the second portion as well, which depicts prison officials extracting the Sablans from the cell and does not contain any images of Estrella’s body.
The first portion of the video, which was withheld, shows what the cell looked like before Estrella’s mutilated body had been removed. The released accompanying audio contains both the Sablans’ voices and prison officials’ voices, but the U.S. attorneys redacted four statements in which the Sablans “describ[e] the heinous acts” they committed to Estrella’s body, according to the ruling.
Prison Legal News argued on appeal that Estrella and his family do not have expectation of privacy since Estrella was a prisoner.
It contended that the use of the images at the trials, combined with his family’s failure to object to the introduction of the evidence in open court, effectively constituted a waiver of privacy interests.
The American Civil Liberties Union and several media outlets, including “60 Minutes” and the Associated Press, filed an amici curiae brief on the news journal’s behalf.
On Jan. 11, the 10th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling, noting that the material was protected by an FOIA exemption for “family members’ right to personal privacy with respect to their close relative’s death-scene images.”
Writing for the 10th Circuit, Judge Michael Murphy said the withheld materials, involving “grotesque and degrading depiction of corpse mutilation,” are unquestionably death-scene images.
“Any diminishment of Estrella’s expectation of privacy as a result of his status as a prisoner does not bear on his family’s privacy interest in not having gruesome images of his body publicly disseminated,” the ruling states. “Estrella’s status as a prisoner only has the potential to affect his own, and not his family’s, privacy interests.”
As is its custom, the Supreme did not issue any comment on its decision to not hear the appeal. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the court’s consideration of the case.