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Imprisoned Prosecutor Fears for His Life

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A former federal prosecutor serving time for murdering his wife claims in court that if the state transfers him to San Quentin prison he faces certain death at the hands of fellow inmates.

In his federal complaint, Kenneth Donney sued the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Dr. Jeffery Beard; and Elvin Valenzuela, warden of the California Men's Colony, at San Luis Obispo, where Donney is serving his time.

Donney was sentenced in 1995 to 16 years to life in prison for murdering his wife, Nina Leibman, by stabbing her 29 times at their Santa Cruz home.

Donney's 7-year old son was home at the time, and "actually tried to enter the room where the murder was taking place," Santa Cruz District Attorney Bob Lee told the Santa Cruz Sentinel after Donney was denied parole for a second time in 2011. Donney and his wife were arguing about their pending divorce when he killed her, according to the Sentinel.

Donney, a former law professor and legal aid attorney, claims he survived a 1997 attempt on his life by an inmate who slit his throat. A prison official then said he could stay at the higher-security Men's Colony if he agreed not to sue the Department of Corrections for gross negligence, he says in the complaint.

But now, 15 years later, the Department of Corrections has slated him for transfer to San Quentin as part of a federal order to tackle overcrowded prisons, Donney says.

He claims that the policy under which the state plans to transfer him is now "void" because Gov. Jerry Brown announced an end to the overcrowding crisis last week.

"If Mr. Donney is transferred into that population, he will be killed," the complaint states.

Donney cites his throat-slashing at Pleasant Valley state prison 15 years ago to bolster the case that he should stay put.

"On Easter Sunday, March 30, 1997, Mr. Donney was in the day room at the Pleasant Valley State Prison with 150 other inmates," the complaint states. "The guard on duty was having coffee in her office, during which time Mr. Donney was attacked by another inmate. Inmate Shelton slit Mr. Donney's jugular vein. Mr. Donney was only saved through the skill of his attending surgeon, having interrupted the surgeon's Easter dinner. The attempted murder was caused by the mass media identifying Donney as a former federal prosecutor."

Donney says he was transferred to California Men's Colony after the attempted murder and met with associate warden Ted McAlister, who bargained with him behind closed doors to avoid a negligence lawsuit against California's prison system.

"Mr. Donney was taken into his office, which inmates never get to see, and Mr. McAlister asked about Mr. Donney's intentions toward the CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] regarding the attack, 'Are you going to do your Ralph Nader thing?' Mr. Donney responded, 'Let me relieve you of those concerns. I want to do my time as safely as possible. I want to stay here at the CMC [California Men's Colony]-East. So, if you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone.' Associate Warden McAlister pounded his desk, 'Done!' And Mr. Donney has been at the CMC-East since then, for over fifteen years, without taking action against the CDCR, and, until now, defendants have left him alone," according to the complaint.

Donney says he lives in a single cell at the prison, to which he has a key.

"If he is transferred, he will be housed in a dormitory, with rows and rows of inmates who have affiliations with the land of Nazis, Skinheads, Aryan brothers and Woods gangs. To them, a former federal prosecutor is a pin cushion. In addition, he would still be in imminent danger even in celled housing in other prisons," according to the complaint.

Donney claims he tried to reverse the decision through an emergency administrative appeal but after no response decided to take legal action.

The Department of Corrections is "deliberately" endangering his life, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, Donney claims.

"If he is transferred, he will be illegally resentenced to death," Donney says in the complaint.

He seeks an injunction blocking his transfer to San Quentin.

He is represented by Alfred Vargas of Ventura.

In its June 28, 2011 article on Donney's parole hearing, the Sentinel reported: "A dramatic moment of the hearing came when Kenneth Donney's son, now 23, told the Parole Board how he heard his mother screaming 'I don't want to die' while his father screamed, 'You should have thought of that before!'

"Donney's son concluded his statement to the parole board by saying 'You're not my father. You forfeited that right when you murdered my mother. I don't want to see you, hear from you, or have any contact with you for the rest of my life.'"

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